For many babies and toddlers, visiting the pediatrician means pulling up into a parking lot, where a masked doctor or nurse reaches through the car window to administer shots or listen to their lungs. These children don’t realize that typical well-child visits involve playing with toys in the waiting room, rolling around an exam table, and playing peek-a-boo with the doctor, while the doctor and nurse observe the way he interacts socially, uses language, moves around the room, and other important developmental skills.

Because of the pandemic, children have attended health care clinics and early care and learning settings much less frequently than usual, and consequently, child development experts like preschool teachers and nurses have had fewer opportunities to monitor children’s development. This means that young children are missing opportunities for having their needs identified and receiving early intervention services like speech and language therapy, physical therapy, psychological services, and assistive technology that set babies on a stronger course for learning and growing.

The unfinished learning that K-12 students experienced over the past 20 months is just as prevalent for our youngest learners who missed many learning opportunities. Yet too often, when urgent pandemic-related education issues are discussed, babies are left out of the discussion. Babies must get the support they deserve to grow into strong preschoolers, elementary school students, and beyond. If not, their likelihood of needing extra support as they grow older is increased. Families of infants and toddlers who have developmental delays are entitled to early intervention services under Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Prior to the pandemic, Black and Latino children with developmental delays were 78% less likely to have their need for early intervention services identified compared to their White peers. It’s likely that the pandemic has only worsened existing inequities in supporting young children and families.

Last fall, in partnership with the National Center for Learning Disabilities and ZERO TO THREE, Ed Trust asked state coordinators of early intervention services how the COVID-19 crisis has affected services for Black and Latino families, families with low incomes, and families with home languages other than English. Data shows that referral rates, wait times, and service rates declined overall in many states, but how that affected families from underserved communities is unclear; states do not collect or report enough data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, income level, and home language, making it difficult to impossible to measure the impact of the pandemic on existing inequities in the early intervention system.

Special education services have long been underfunded, and states must make difficult decisions in determining how to serve babies and their families with very limited budgets and low staffing. Several state coordinators who responded to our survey reported difficulty during the pandemic in identifying and locating children who are potentially eligible for early intervention services, including those from families with low incomes and those who speak languages other than English. Many coordinators reported that their states provided inadequate guidance or no guidance at all during the pandemic on how to conduct evaluations virtually or in-person evaluations safely, how to serve non-English-speaking families, and how to deliver services to families without reliable internet access. While some states provided clear and timely guidance, many states did not, which in turn likely has a disproportionate impact on families who already faced barriers to accessing these services prior to the pandemic.

There are countless educational issues swirling around our national discourse about the pandemic, but too often, those discussions only focus on students K-12 and not on our youngest learners, even though babies’ brains are undergoing the most dramatic brain development of any students. Babies can’t speak for themselves, so it’s vital that we all advocate for them through demanding better funding and more equitable policies for these life-changing early intervention services.

Far too few toddlers have the privilege of even a drive-up visit to a pediatrician, or interaction every week with preschool teachers who are steeped in child development expertise. To make sure all young children and families, particularly those whose communities are underserved, get the supports they deserve, state and federal leaders must:

  1. Collect and publicly report better data
  2. Give prompt and evidence-based guidance
  3. Strengthen strategies for identifying children who need services
  4. Expand Part C eligibility to include infants and toddlers who are at-risk for developmental delays
  5. Fully fund an early childhood system, including early intervention (through local, state, and federal funding) for a continuum of services and supports that meet young children and families’ needs

State leaders also must prepare for higher post-pandemic referral rates for special education services, including preschool and early elementary school, which means strengthening the pipeline of culturally and linguistically diverse clinicians and educators who reflect the diversity of our youngest learners.

Today’s babies are tomorrow’s K-12 students, and they deserve a strong, healthy start. Let’s give our youngest learners the early interventions they need.