The health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been an exceptional scenario in the educational field, since, at the time of this writing, the closure of schools is affecting 89% of the student body worldwide (UNESCO, 2020a). This has meant that, suddenly, an alternative system of distance learning had to be implemented at all educational stages in an attempt to minimize the disruption caused by this interruption of the formal education process (United Nations, 2020). Faced with this situation, the Internet and technological media have played a very relevant role in establishing family-school collaboration and in the development of teaching–learning processes.
These measures have affected all levels of education, from the first years of schooling to higher education. The learning rhythm has also been altered in children in Early Childhood Education and Care. This constitutes an essential stage of education, given that 87% of the brain is formed in the first three years (UNICEF, 2014). Children’s development is not only affected by aspects of health and nutrition but also by the interactions that they have with people and objects in their environment (Herrera et al., 2006). During early childhood, the basis of human development and personality are established, from which the successive formative stages will be consolidated and perfected (Bodero, 2017).
In European countries, 34% of children under 3 and 95% of those over 4 attend school. In the case of Spain, schooling in the 0–3 cycle has doubled in the last 10 years (Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, 2019a). In Spain, as in some other countries, there are two types of educational centres, depending on their ownership; state, which is owned by the government (regional or autonomous) and private (owned by a company). There is a third intermediate option, the state-assisted centres, whose ownership is private, but their financing, at least partially, comes from the government. Likewise, there are first cycle centres (0–3), second cycle centres (3–6), and centres that offer both cycles (0–6).
In the 2020–2021 academic year, there are 9154 Early Childhood Education and Care schools in Spain, 50% of which are private, although they enroll only 32.1% of the children (Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, 2020). In the pre-school age group, as age increases, the percentage of children enrolled in centres increases. To illustrate, just 10% of 1-year-olds and 58.7% of 2 year-olds are in centres, but those percentages jump to 96.2% for 3-year-olds, and 97.1% for 5-year-olds (Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, 2019b). Thus, centre-based programs are practically universal for 3- to 5-year-olds in Spain.
These data show that the objective of having at least 95% of children between the ages of four and the starting age of compulsory primary education participating in preschool education by the end of 2020 (Official Journal of the European Union, 2009), has been reached.
The paradigm shift from the care-centre model to the educational model, as well as the increase in schooling in Early Childhood Education and Care, brings with it undeniable benefits for children. This is reflected by the results of the meta-analysis carried out by van Huizen and Plantenga (2018). Here, multiple positive effects are shown in the cognitive area, social-emotional development, or motor skills, especially in children with more unfavourable socio-economic conditions. Thus, a key role is played by the early childhood education stage as a compensator of differences from the very first moments of education (Bausela, 2019), and by contributing to the guarantee of an inclusive, equitable and quality education, while at the same time providing learning opportunities for all (UNESCO, 2015), and addressing inequities for this group.
Along the same lines, numerous studies support the need for, and the positive effects of cooperation among families and schools, as this is considered to constitute one of the determining factors of the quality of education (European Commission, 2000). In a modern educational system, it is essential that parent-school relationships be understood as proactive cooperation, established between families and teachers to promote the integral development of children. We understand cooperation as a synonym for engagement, defined as goals for children's learning that are shared by teachers and parents (Pushor, 2012).When parents are more engaged, children tend to perform better in school (Van Voorhis et al., 2013). Also when parents and teachers work together, they can provide “optimum opportunities for children to learn and develop” (Whalley, 2017, p. 66). On the other hand, the educational level of the parents constitutes a factor that can be associated with the academic and work development of the children (OECD, 2018) as well as with the degree of participation in the education of their children (Criado et al., 2000; Marchesi, 2003; Valdés et al., 2009), with maternal level of education identified as one of the factors that can most influence children’s cognitive development (Reardon, 2011). Thus, this cooperation tends to be associated with improvements in diverse variables such as academic performance (Castro et al., 2015) and social-emotional functioning, leading to a reduction in behavioural problems (Thomson & Carlson, 2017), as well as more positive peer interaction during play (Besler & Kurt, 2016).
The responsibility for initiating this approach must be assumed by the school as an educational institution (Rodríguez-Ruiz et al., 2016; Triana et al., 2019). However, for these results to be truly obtained, the participation of families in the school cannot be reduced to mere representation in the governing structures of the schools (Medina, 1990). The relationship between families and schools must be dynamic and inspiring in order to transform the life and very nature of the school (Horcajo, 1979), so that parents feel interested and involved in the educational processes of their children. Moreover, it requires a special effort to integrate students from the most socially, economically, and culturally disadvantaged sectors of the population into the “democratic culture” of the school (Gil, 1995). In order to involve families in schools and to foster a fluid collaboration (Duddy, 2019), educators must be particularly prepared to respond with appropriate strategies that make the family-school relationship viable in any situation. These strategies include changing the structure and dynamics, or the composition or performance of roles (Rivas-Borrell & Ugarte-Artal, 2014) and adapting to challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to facilitate an adequate interaction between early childhood professionals and children’s parents, both professional support and guidance is needed (Ward, 2018).
The consequences of the temporary suspension of activities in early childhood educational centres have affected both families and teachers, with the digital divide and the need to distribute available time between working and educating posing serious problems. Specifically, according to UNESCO (2020b), these consequences stem from unequal access to digital platforms and the lack of preparation of families for distance or home-based teaching. In this regard, UNICEF (2021) highlighted that between March 11th, 2020 and February 2nd, 2021, schools were completely closed for an average of 95 days, which is half an academic year. In addition, the countries that have had closed schools for the most days are the ones that have the least access to the Internet from home.
As seen in other investigations which have been performed in Spain, the school closure has increased inequalities among primary (Cabrera et al., 2020), secondary (Aznar-Sala, 2020), and university students (Rodicio García et al., 2020), and especially in those from disadvantaged families. Similarly, studies focused on early childhood education in other countries also indicate that the lockdown has exacerbated inequalities among low-income families and for children with disabilities (Atiles et al., 2021).
In addition, according UNICEF (2020), “emergencies are becoming more frequent around the world and, moreover, their virulence is increasing” (p.3) and, for this reason, they have proposed an Emergency Cycle. It will help us to be better prepared for future crises like the one being lived with COVID-19. This cycle is composed of the five stages: prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response and, finally, recovery. The first stage is prevention, establishing the actions that are taken in advance and that are aimed at avoiding the impact of a possible crisis. The second stage is mitigation, being those actions that seek to limit or reduce the negative impact of the crisis in the first moments. In the third stage, the pillars for reconstruction begin to be put in place. The response to the crisis is the fourth stage of the emergency, which is characterized by the actions taken after the emergency is declared and which are aimed at reducing the impact of the crisis in the short and medium term. Finally, in the recovery stage, the new normal can be resumed, but without forgetting what happened to reduce the impact of future crises.
Therefore, the objective of this study is to analyse parent-teacher cooperation in the exceptional situation in which we find ourselves, with infants and toddlers restricted to home. Hence, this work explored how families have responded to this situation, whether they have established contact and collaboration with the schools, and how teachers’ knowledge of the digital divide affected said collaboration.