Focus on Ethics. The Code and COVID-19 (2023)

Meir Muller Angela C. Baum

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on all of our lives, and it has presented some unique challenges to the field of early childhood education. This Focus on Ethics column discusses some of the ethical issues the pandemic has created for teachers and administrators working in programs that serve young children. It was written by guest editors Meir Muller and Angela Baum; both are members of the early childhood faculty at the University of South Carolina. The authors draw on their knowledge of young children, early childhood programs, and understanding of the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct to provide a clear and thoughtful discussion of real-life experiences during the pandemic. We’re thankful that they were willing to address this very timely and important topic.

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—Stephanie Feeney and Nancy Freeman, Focus on Ethics editors

In mid-March of this year, a second-grader and a third-grader headed outside for recess. One child nervously asked his friend, “Do you think that the coronavirus is out there?” On the same day in another building nearby, a 4-year-old screamed across the classroom, “Don’t lick that toy, it will go viral!” Hearing these conversations, the children’s teachers could not yet appreciate the substantial impact that COVID-19 would soon have on their early childhood programs. Nor could they predict the ethical dilemmas that would arise from the circumstances surrounding the pandemic.

COVID-19 has reshaped the way we provide early care and education. We have new and emerging guidelines on health procedures and an ongoing barrage of news stories that we and children are exposed to. We are recognizing unimagined impacts on our teaching and caregiving, on our mental and physical well-being, and on children’s learning and development. These changes have influenced our interactions with children, families, colleagues, and our wider communities. In the brief exchanges in the opening vignette, we can identify some of the many changes occurring in early childhood settings during (and as we emerge from) the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Because many centers no longer allow the comingling of classes, children might not be going to recess together.
  • Children, families, and staff are experiencing a great deal of stress and are showing their worries and fears in both verbal and nonverbal ways.
  • COVID-19 is “out there” and is forcing us to adjust our everyday practices. For example, we are disinfecting at unprecedented levels, limiting group sizes, restricting who can be in our buildings, and modifying drop-off and pickup practices, among many other programmatic changes.
  • Like the child who worries that licking a toy will cause an illness to “go viral,” some programs are now limiting or removing plush toys, are not allowing toys from home, are removing furniture, and are rethinking what we know about germ transference.

Even more than just adding new policies and procedures to our daily routines, these alterations are requiring us to change practices that have been foundational in early education settings. As a result, some of the changes recommended by health care experts and by local licensing agencies—coupled with people’s conceptions and misconceptions—lead to ethical concerns as we try to meet the needs of different individuals and groups.

In this Focus on Ethics column, we (the authors) describe an ethical dilemma involving early childhood educators’ interactions with each of the stakeholder groups identified in the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct (2011): children, families, colleagues, the community, and society. As in previous columns, we will use the process described inEthics and the Early Childhood Educator: Using the NAEYC Code(Feeney & Freeman 2018) to systematically apply the Code to the first three cases presented here, and we will use the last case to support our suggested resolution. Throughout the analysis of these cases, we will highlight the unique challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. While previous Focus on Ethics columns have included input from the field, the analysis of these cases is solely that of the authors.

The Cases

Consider the following cases:

Responsibilities to children

A Black 8-year-old tells her White classmate that her mom said COVID-19 has been really hard on Black people. The White child responds that the virus has been hard for everyone. The teacher, feeling uncomfortable with the conversation, quickly agrees that the virus is hard for everyone. Later, the teacher reflects on her response, and she wonders if she should have offered a more nuanced answer that was supportive of her Black student’s statement.

Responsibilities to families

A child care center puts a new health policy in place that only allows adults who are on staff or who work directly with children to enter the building. Families must remain outside while a staff member escorts children into the building. After a month, one child is still experiencing significant separation anxiety, crying for extended periods of each day. The child’s grandmother insists that her granddaughter will quickly adjust if she is allowed to join her in the classroom for a couple of days. The grandmother points out that other children’s therapists can enter and stay in the building. The director wonders if allowing the grandparent into the center should take precedence over the new health policy.

Responsibilities to colleagues

Anna and Ieesha—who have worked well together as coteachers in a preschool classroom for years—are having a hard time seeing eye to eye on whether a face mask can be taken off during certain times of the day. Their program has instituted a new policy that face masks must be worn when children are present. Anna removes her mask when she observes that a child is emotionally distressed so that the child can see her smile. She only removes her mask for a short period of time and only to ensure a child’s emotional well-being. Ieesha has always considered Anna to offer the highest quality care for children, but she believes that masks must not be removed because of their program’s new policy. Each educator wants to best serve the children, yet they cannot agree on this protocol. Ieesha wonders the best way to address the situation.

Responsibilities to community and society

The state’s governor is pushing for all businesses to reopen due to the economic stress created by continued closures and political partisanship. Health professionals warn that the state is not ready to reopen or to relax social distancing policies. Families turn to their child care provider and plead that they reopen: they must go back to work in order to keep their jobs, pay rent, purchase food, and care for their children. At the same time, the program’s director is also hearing from staff: some are eager to return to work to support themselves and their families while others have conflicting feelings due to health concerns about being on site. The director is unsure how to proceed.

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During these times, emotional support from teachers is crucial.

Guidance around ethical issues

Before considering the specifics of each of these cases, early childhood educators must first decide whether the situation they are facing involves ethics (Feeney & Freeman 2018). They can use the following question as a litmus test:

“Does it [the situation] involve an issue of right or wrong, a duty or an obligation, human welfare, or individuals’ best interests?” If you answer no, it is not an ethical issue. . . . You can handle these issues as you would any workplace concern. If you answer yes, however, you are facing an issue that involves ethics (Feeney & Freeman 2018, 20).

Following this step, an educator can decide whether an ethical responsibility or an ethical dilemma is present. An ethical responsibility is a relatively clear-cut decision for which a course of action is mandated by our profession; it is often addressed directly in the Code or in applicable laws or regulations. An ethical dilemma is a conflict between alternatives where there are two possible acceptable decisions, each with potential benefits and detriments.If an educator decides that a case presents an ethical dilemma, guidance from the Code can help determine a justifiable resolution.

The following section describes the authors’ thoughts on whether each of the previously described cases is an ethical responsibility or an ethical dilemma and provides guidance toward possible resolutions.

Focus on Ethics. The Code and COVID-19 (1)

Child case

What ethical issues are involved in this case?

This scenario does involve ethics because it concerns right and wrong, human welfare, and individuals’ best interests. First, the child conveyed information that her mother shared with her. By not validating the mother’s words, the teacher might cause emotional confusion for the child, which is clearly not in the child’s best interest. The teacher’s reflection on whether to revisit the conversation seems to indicate that her response did not show respect for the information shared by the child. Furthermore, there is an issue that is larger than the questions raised by this specific child: the teacher’s reluctance to enter into a conversation related to race is an all too common occurrence in early childhood education (Baines, Tisdale, & Long 2018; Boutte & Muller 2018; Wynter-Hoyte et al. 2019). Therefore, this issue includes an ethical component, both in regard to the individual child’s welfare and to larger societal concerns.

Is the case an ethical responsibility or an ethical dilemma?

This case is an ethical responsibility, particularly when thinking about children’s emotional development during COVID-19. A teacher should always be very cautious when contradicting what a child reports hearing from a family member. It is important that teachers never put children in a situation where they must choose whose “side” to take—the teacher’s or their family’s. In this case, when the child reported a factually accurate statement, the teacher should have validated it. During COVID-19 times, this takes on even larger ramifications. Children can be more vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, stress, sadness, and other negative emotions during traumatic events that disrupt their daily lives (e.g., closure of school, social distancing, and home confinement) and as they witness difficult emotions in those around them (Schonfeld, Demaria, & Kumar 2020). During these times, the emotional support from teachers is crucial.

General guidance for the teacher

For the reasons above, the teacher in this case can use the Code to help realign her moral compass. One possible action is for the teacher to meet with the child to apologize and to affirm that her mother’s words are correct. The teacher can say to the child, “I was thinking about what your mom said and I read more about how COVID-19 is affecting the African American community. I want to apologize for not agreeing with you yesterday. I now know that the virus has a terrible impact on the African American community. Thank you for sharing those words with me. Today, I am going to talk about this when we have our group time.” This case illustrates that the intention of the Code combined with specific items (e.g., I-1.4 “To appreciate the vulnerability of children and their dependence on adults”; I-1.10 “To ensure that each child’s culture, language, ethnicity, and family structure are recognized and valued in the program”; and P-1.2 “We shall care for and educate children in positive emotional and social environments that are cognitively stimulating and that support each child’s culture, language, ethnicity, and family structure”) can enhance moral awareness and point to an ethical course of action.

Families case

What ethical issues are involved in this case?

Ethical issues involving families are among the most prevalent of ethical issues (Feeney & Freeman 2018). In the case presented here, a conflict exists between a family’s request to enter the center (which the family sees as in the best interest of the child) and the center’s new policy in response to COVID-19 (which prohibits non-staff members who do not work directly with children from entering the building). This case clearly contains an ethical component because it involves the rights of a child’s family as well as the best interest of the child and the center’s employees.

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We are recognizing unimagined impacts on our teaching and on children’s learning and development.

Is the case an ethical responsibility or an ethical dilemma?

This case does pose an ethical dilemma. There is a conflict between alternatives, and there are two possible acceptable decisions. This case is particularly complex as the Code states, in Principle 2.1, “We shall not deny family members access to their child’s classroom or program setting unless access is denied by court order or other legal restriction.” Yet allowing access could cause harm to adults and children in the center (P-1.1), and this takes precedence over all other principles in the Code. The Code also states, in Principle 4.6, “We shall be familiar with laws and regulations that serve to protect children . . . and be vigilant in ensuring that these laws and regulations are followed.”

General guidance for the director

The director must recognize that each family will feel differently about regulations that limit the number (and qualifications) of adults who can interact with a group of children. This particular grandmother might wonder why another child’s support professional can enter the center but her grandchild cannot have an adult present to support her during an emotionally difficult time.

In this case, the director should recognize that, although there may be families and staff who do not believe all COVID-19 precautions are necessary, her center has adopted policies to maintain the health of all children. Therefore, as supported by Principle 1.1, the director’s responsibility is to enforce the policy. At the same time, the director should “inform families of . . . policies” (P-2.2) and “ensure that the family is involved in significant decisions affecting their child” (P-2.4). The director can also suggest alternatives to the grandmother other than entering the classroom. For instance, the grandmother could use a video conferencing app or call the center to speak with her grandchild during the day. The director can also offer to have a staff member contact the grandmother each day as soon as the child settles in. In these ways, the grandmother’s request can be valued, the child can be helped, and the center policies can be maintained.

Colleagues case

What ethical issues are involved in this case?

This situation concerns ethics because Ieesha must consider her ethical responsibility to protect the children from a practice that the center has identified as potentially harmful to them; her commitment to supporting the program in meeting its stated goals; and her own health and well-being.

Is the case an ethical responsibility or an ethical dilemma?

The current situation is multifaceted. Ieesha needs to consider issues related to best professional practices during a time of quickly changing guidelines, balancing children’s physical and emotional health, and understanding children’s dependence on adults to maintain a healthy setting. One of the most challenging elements is that Ieesha has spent years watching Anna provide only the highest quality care for children. Ieesha is experiencing a dilemma: although Anna removing her mask does seem to relieve children’s immediate emotional distress, she could potentially spread the virus.

Consider ethical finesse—that is, resolving an issue in a way that is acceptable to all parties involved.

General guidance for the teacher

Feeney and Freeman (2018) often advise educators to consider ethical finesse—that is, resolving an issue in a way that is acceptable to all parties involved. In this specific case, ethical finesse can be effective because there is mutual respect between Anna and Ieesha. They possess a shared history that can lead to an openness to creative problem solving and good-faith negotiation, which are both necessary components of compromise.

Ieesha can try to revisit this issue with Anna by preparing documentation of guidance for wearing a face covering as outlined by the CDC and the program’s licensing agency. In addition, Ieesha should have a copy of P-1.1 on hand to discuss how to apply this directive as it represents our highest moral responsibility to children. A possible way to use finesse in this dilemma might be to request that the center director purchase clear face shields. Clear face shields meet the CDC guidelines but allow children to see teachers’ faces. Using the Code as a source of support, these two teachers are well positioned to request this purchase. If purchasing shields is not possible, the center can plan and carry out learning experiences with children about communicating while wearing masks or use picture charts and other visuals to signal children’s and teachers’ emotional states.

Conclusion: The community and society case

We will use this case as a conclusion to this column. NAEYC has had a Code of Ethical Conduct since 1989 that has provided guidance for its members (Freeman & Feeney 2004) over those years and through many different situations. COVID-19 is unique, however, due to our overall unpreparedness for a global pandemic coupled with the swift and multifaceted response it required.

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The first case highlights racial inequities that certainly existed prior to COVID-19 but have been further exacerbated by the pandemic and have been rightly brought to the forefront by racial justice demonstrations. This case reiterates the need to always respond to children in ways that support their “individual and family strengths, cultural background, language(s), abilities, and experiences” (NAEYC 2019, 4). The next two cases echo past dilemmas but present situations uniquely resulting from COVID-19. These cases demonstrate how to use the Code to guide us in unfamiliar situations. The final case is one that perhaps has never been experienced by early childhood professionals. The director—who is caught between desperate families and colleagues, a cavalier governor, and cautious health care professionals—faces a truly unique ethical dilemma.

Following the Code will help guide us in doing no harm to children, their families, our colleagues, and society.

The authors of this column suggest that the director might open her center in stages—first for essential workers, then for more families—until the time she feels she can meet the needs of all children while following guidance provided by health care professionals. It is important to note that, while the director may feel compelled to reopen her center for reasons previously stated, the Code also guides us to work to change policies that do not benefit children (P-4.11). With this guidance from the Code, the director should voice her concerns within the community regarding reopening and advocate for policies that provide clear benefits for young children. The director can take heart in the fact that the NAEYC Code of Ethics is designed to be a living document that is adaptable to our unprecedented times. Following the Code will help guide us in our ultimate professional responsibility of doing no harm to children, their families, our colleagues, and society.


Baines, J., C. Tisdale, & S. Long. 2018. We’ve Been Doing It Your Way Long Enough: Choosing the Culturally Relevant Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Boutte, G., & M. Muller. 2018. “Engaging Children in Conversations about Oppression Using Children’s Literature.” Talking Points 30 (1): 2–9.

Feeney, S., & N. K. Freeman. 2018.Ethics and the Early Childhood Educator: Using the NAEYC Code. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Freeman, N.K., & S. Feeney. 2004. “The NAEYC Code Is a Living Document.” Young Children 59 (6): 12.

NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). 2011. “Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment: A Position Statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.” Washington, DC: NAEYC.

NAEYC. 2019. “Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education.” Position statement. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Schonfeld, D.J., T. Demaria, & S.A. Kumar. 2020. “Supporting Young Children after Crisis Events.” Young Children 75 (3): 6–15.

(Video) RCSLT webinar: Covid-19 - Practical and ethical decisions in adults with Covid-19

Wynter-Hoyte, K., M. Muller, N. Bryan, G.S. Boutte, & S. Long. 2019.“Dismantling Eurocratic Practices in Teacher Education: A Preservice Program Focused on Culturally Relevant, Humanizing, and Decolonizing Pedagogies.”In Handbook of Research on Field-Based Teacher Education, eds. T.E. Hodges & A.C. Baum, 300–21. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Copyright © 2020 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at


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