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North Dakota doesn’t provide statewide funding for prekindergarten. But while we’re working with our partners at the North Dakota Department of Human Services to garner support for this and similar programs through state legislative leaders, our children need high-quality learning environments now.

We cannot simply say we’re going to set aside learning for six months or 18 months — or even two to three years, if the pandemic endures for that long. Even with Covid-19 cases spiking around the state and country, we just can’t say, “We’ll get back to that.” Our 4-year-olds are only four once.

“Our 4-year-olds are only four once.”

I believe the funding to support early childhood services belongs with our human services division. My perspective for North Dakota is that in this situation, the schools needs to be the Robin in this Batman and Robin duo. Our role at the Department of Public Instruction is to provide information, assistance and policy guidance to make sure that when our 5-year-olds come to us in kindergarten, they’re happy, healthy, well-adjusted and have been enjoying environments that are rich in learning.

Related: Why six states still spend nothing on state preschool

Ultimately, the best way to ensure kindergarten readiness in North Dakota will be with a statewide commitment to quality early childhood learning environments and experiences. Until then — and during the pandemic — we’re working hard to support young children as well as we can.

6 percent – portion of North Dakota 4-year-olds currently able to benefit from digital preschool resources provided by the state

One of the ways that we have encouraged early childhood learning is through our collaboration with the nonprofit Waterford.org. The Waterford Upstart program offers online and offline lessons in literacy and social skills, as well as a laptop and internet connection at no cost to families if needed. What makes the Waterford Upstart program so effective in balancing public health, learning and our communities is that it provides tips on academic and social-emotional support to our families, in their homes, as they choose.

Our families’ membership in the Waterford Upstart program has rapidly increased during the pandemic. Some of our state’s superintendents and principals are emailing and asking, “How do we make sure that we can get more families engaged in the Waterford Upstart program?” While we are doing our best to enroll as many children as possible, funding and policy restrictions mean that only 6 percent of our state’s 4-year-olds are currently able to benefit.

Related: Experts call for an end to online preschool programs

Another way our state is supporting early learners is by working with our existing public and private pre-Ks, as well as our existing licensed child-care providers. We’re providing them funding for in-person support and technical assistance to increase the quality of child care, both from educational and safety perspectives. For the 45,000 children who spend most of their week with these critical frontline workers, these efforts help stem the learning loss that experts expect to see among many young children in 2020 and beyond.

“Ultimately, the best way to ensure kindergarten readiness in North Dakota will be with a statewide commitment to quality early childhood learning environments and experiences.”

These efforts are important because, in North Dakota, we’re standing together with the goal of moving as many of our learners back to face-to-face learning as soon as it is safely possible to do so. We’re tracking our progress with a statewide map that shows how many students are learning face-to-face, remotely or in a hybrid situation.

Every day, we’re working to help find strategies to contain the spread of the virus so more of our students, especially the youngest ones, can safely experience the educational and social benefits of in-person learning.

Kirsten Baesler is the state superintendent of schools for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

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