Boston families with young children may have had a harder time accessing key child development screening and services during the first year of the pandemic, according to a new report.
Under the state's Early Intervention program, kids under the age of 3 with developmental delays or disabilities can access therapy, specialized doctors and supports at no cost to the family.
The number of eligible Boston children receiving Early Intervention services fell 40% by February 2021 compared to a year earlier, according to the analysis by the Boston Opportunity Agenda — a partnership with the city of Boston and several philanthropies, including The Boston Foundation.
The decline varied widely across Boston's neighborhoods. In Hyde Park, Roslindale and West Roxbury, there were 56% fewer children receiving Early Intervention services in February 2021, compared to February 2020.
Referrals to those services dropped 12% overall in the city. Referrals in central Boston and Roxbury fell most sharply, by 25%. Fenway/Kenmore was the only area that saw an increase in referrals, which went up 20% during that time period.
"Those early years are a critical time to be able to do skill building with parents about how they engage with young children, to be doing skill building with young children," said Kristen McSwain, executive director of the Boston Opportunity Agenda. "There's a large number of children for whom that did not happen."
If those children are now 3 years old, it could fall to schools to assess their developmental needs and try to make up for the lost time when interventions could have helped those children and families.
The group also released recommendations for the city's next mayor, including the creation of an early childhood office to coordinate services for young children and families as well as shoring up early childhood programs for workers who have struggled financially during the pandemic.
"Yes, it is a crisis," McSwain said. "There's a slate of things that we can do, and this is the moment for us to be doing them."
According to the report, Boston had 12% fewer licensed early education and care programs in March 2021, compared to March 2020. The group has noted the total number of licensed providers has been dropping since 2017, with the biggest decline during the pandemic.
Statewide, 90% of licensed capacity is estimated to have reopened since the start of the pandemic — though those numbers vary across the state, with a larger percent of programs in Western Massachusetts still closed.
"More and more of our centers, and more and more of our family child care, will find other ways to be employed," McSwain said. "Particularly in the family child care, if I'm not making enough money to keep my child care open, right now, there's other things I can do for supporting my family. In terms of a center, we've seen a lot of them close and we will see more of them close."
As of March 2021, Boston had 81 fewer licensed providers open than the previous year. The number of licensed seats were down by more than 1,300. That may not reflect the actual number of slots available. Some center directors have not been able to open all of their classrooms because of staffing shortages.
Again, the strain for early educators differed by neighborhood. Allston/Brighton and Roslindale had the biggest declines in the number of licensed seats and across all ages. Providers who received subsidies were 4.6 times more likely to remain open than those which relied solely on families to pay out of pocket.
McSwain said the city can do more to help family child cares access programs for other small businesses. Massachusetts is slated to received more than $714 million in federal funds dedicated to early childhood.
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The report did not look at demand for early education and care, which may have shifted as a result of the pandemic, with women leaving the workforce or working from home. The Boston Opportunity Agenda's next report in November is expected to analyze demand, quality and affordability.