Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern Virginia’s education system and access to education has come under scrutiny. Specifically, early childhood education has become a focal point for the region, as preschool enrollment and access for children has become limited: Children at or near the poverty line sit at the second lowest rate for preschool enrollment in the country, according to The Community Foundation for Northern Virginia.
This focus has only been magnified as the results from Virginia’s 2020-2021 Standards of Learning–which assesses students in reading, math, and science–show a significant decline in overall student participation and test scores in Northern Virginia and the state.
Virginia has taken measured steps in an attempt to address these concerns.
The state general assembly passed HB 2206 in April, which provided more than $203.6 million in direct cash assistance to 4,000-plus child care providers from the summer of 2020 to summer 2021 through four rounds of CARES grants. HB 2206 also expanded access to the state’s Child Care Subsidy Program for parents earning up to 85 percent of the state medium income, as well as parents searching for a job.
“Investments in early learning are not just investments in success for our little learners in school and beyond; we are investing in the workforce of today by allowing parents to return to school or work knowing their children are in safe hands,” Jenna Conway, deputy superintendent for Virginia DOE’s division of early childhood care and education, said in a statement.
As a result of the bill’s expansion of eligibility for families, over 27,000 children in the state are accessing “quality affordable programs,” Conway said.
The state’s efforts to improve early education have been ongoing for years. In August, Virginia authorized providing $151.6 million to DOE’s Virginia Preschool Initiative and the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation’s Mixed Delivery Preschool Grant Program in 2022. The funding is a $60.9 million increase from the previous school year and more than twice the state’s investment in 2018.
“Access to high-quality early learning is critical for children’s development, and the Commonwealth’s investment in early childhood education is a major reason Virginia was named the best state to do business for the second year in a row,” Governor Ralph Northam said in a statement at the time of the authorization. “Increasing school readiness is more important than ever as we recover from the pandemic, and this historic commitment puts us one step closer to offering a great start for all Virginia children.”
This latest investment in the VPI and Mixed Delivery program authorized provisions for more than 25,000 3- and 4-year-olds this fall.
The Virginia General Assembly also passed legislation in 2020 that directed the Board of Education to establish a DOE-administered, unified public-private system for early care and education. The legislation helped unify the state’s birth-to-five early childhood system and “effectively establishes the VDOE as the single point of accountability for school readiness in the Commonwealth,” Conway said.
Through this directive, Virginia DOE launched the Early Childhood Advisory Committee to advise the BOE on early childhood programs and policies, while members of the committee review diversity of early childhood programs, children’s advocates, and child developments specialists in the state.
Additionally, the Virginia Department of Education–which was placed in charge of childcare licensing and monitoring, as well as childcare assistance programs on July 1–launched the Child Care Stabilization Grant Program to further assist early education efforts. This program will use funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to award eligible childcare programs grants totaling $440 million to cover pandemic-related costs and stabilize their operations.
Virginia has also directed other federal relief funds to support childcare, including providing personal protective equipment, covering co-pays for parents, paying for more absence days, and increasing rates for home-based childcare, which never closed during the pandemic.
Through relief funds and legislation, Virginia has also helped reopen nearly 2,300 childcare programs and expanded eligibility for Virginia families. Of the childcare programs that were open in March 2020, only 8 percent have not reopened, according to Conway.
“Despite the progress we have made, tens of thousands of children in Virginia under the age of 5 still do not have access to quality early-learning opportunities, and at least half of children arrive in kindergarten in need of costly interventions to catch up with their peers,” Conway said.
Virginia is continuing to build on its support of childcare programs as it builds a new measurement and improvement system, called VQB5, which is a uniform measurement and improvement system that focuses on all publicly funded birth-to-five classrooms, while providing support to families for choosing quality programming across different program types.
The VQB5 system will specifically focus on teacher-child interactions for more than 9,000 infant, toddler, and preschool classrooms. The system will set shared expectations for evaluating quality while supporting teachers for all birth-to-five programs. Teachers and program leaders will also receive feedback and support, training, and other resources to help improve curriculum.
The system–which is in its first practice year–will be scaled over the next few years and will be required for all publicly funded providers to participate in.
VQB5 builds on Virginia’s federal Preschool Development Grant Birth-to-Five (PDG B-5), of which Fairfax County and Alexandria are among the participating communities. PDG B-5 seeks to improve early childhood education and unify birth-to-five providers.
“Virginia is working closely with the field to build VQB5 and to ensure that all educators have access to supports like foundational training, quality curriculum, and effective professional development such as coaching,” Conway said. “More than 80 percent of the field is now involved in these efforts.”
Virginia is also continuing to financially support childcare educators directly in order to help reduce turnover, which in turn may negatively affect quality improvements. Virginia plans to provide more than $10 million to the more than 6,000 educators who have registered for the incentive this year.
“If Virginia doesn’t invest, these children are at risk of starting behind,” Conway said. “This then puts them at risk of not being on level for reading and math at third grade, not graduating on time, and not being as successful in college, career and/or life.”
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