Apparently, what’s good for a 5-year-old in a public school kindergarten class is much different than what’s good for a 4-year-old in a state-run preschool program.

At last count, 64 school districts and 50 charter schools that enroll around two-thirds of North Carolina public school students have selected a full-time remote learning option for the start of the next school year.  As a result, tens of thousands of 5-year-old children will begin kindergarten this month in a mandatory full-time remote le­arning program.

At the same time, 4-year-old children enrolled in North Carolina’s early childhood program for at-risk children, NC Pre-K, will have the benefit of in-person instruction in participating Head Start, public school, and private child care classrooms across North Carolina.

On Monday, the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) released Interim COVID-19 Reopening Policies for NC Pre-K Programs.  According to the authors of the DHHS guidance document, the overarching goal for NC Pre-K programs is to “provide as much stability and proven in-person instruction as possible as we navigate through the pandemic.”  This includes the following principles:

  • All NC Pre-K students receive the benefit of fully in-person instruction to the fullest extent possible.
  • All parents/guardians are offered the option of in-person instruction for the full program year.
  • Recognizing the unique challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning will be available for all NC Pre-K students as an option of last resort and used as sparingly as possible (such as during time-limited school entry periods where schools are in remote learning only, during necessary quarantine periods).
  • All remote learning offered will meet standard quality measures that support children’s healthy development and engage families in their children’s learning.

The focus on maximizing in-person instruction and minimizing remote learning is a distinguishing feature of the NC Pre-K guidance, particularly when compared to the K-12 public school document issued by the same agency on June 8 or state education guidelines formulated merely to “provide a roadmap that supports reopening schools to make this enormous task less difficult for our districts, schools, and communities.”

Aside from cognitive dissonance, why is there such a difference?

Governance is one factor.  On July 14, Gov. Cooper announced that school districts and charter schools would have the option of offering in-person instruction with strict health and safety protocols (Plan B), full-time remote learning (Plan C), or a hybrid plan that employed both in-person and remote learning approaches.  While the governor limited the choices available, school boards and administrators supervising North Carolina’s 1.5 million public school students would have the final say.

On the other hand, the supervision of child care facilities is much more centralized.  The NC Division of Child Development and Early Education, a division within DHHS, oversees all licensed child care facilities and services provided to over 31,000 children participating in the NC Pre-K program last year.

Another factor is that child care centers and K-12 public schools did not follow the same operational trajectory since the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated in March. Gov. Cooper’s March 23 executive order closed public school buildings and thus shuttered all NC Pre-K programs operating in public schools.  But Cooper’s March 27 executive order specified that child care centers were essential businesses and, therefore, could remain open to provide in-person services.  Some NC Pre-K programs managed by private operators did just that.  According to a survey conducted from late May to mid-June by Duke University’s Center for Child & Family Policy, around 11% responded that their classroom closed temporarily or remained open through the end of the program year.

Similar to their public school counterparts, nearly all early learning educators remained employed and provided some level of NC Pre-K services to children and families.  In April, DHHS instructed all NC Pre-K providers to provide remote learning opportunities (or in-person instruction when appropriate) regardless of whether their school building or center was open or closed.  Nearly 9 out of 10 children received remote learning services only, mostly in the form of video-based communications and phone calls.  The remaining children received in-person instruction, a combination of in-person and remote learning, or sadly no services at all.

Unlike public school leaders, however, DHHS officials are not willing to toss our youngest integral tots into the remote learning hopper for processing.  After all, they concede, there is “limited evidence on best practices for remote learning for young children.”  Instead, they recognize that “children learn best when they have the opportunity to be together with their classmates and teachers.”  This is true for all young children in North Carolina, not just those 4-year-olds enrolled in NC Pre-K.