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COVID-19: The Forgotten Children

Thursday 2 July 2020
The importance of Early Childhood Development (ECD) is undisputed as a critical time for the rapid development of cognitive, physical, socio-emotional and language skills in young children. In South Africa, the National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy stipulates a comprehensive package of ECD services for all infants and young children, including children with special needs, disabilities and other developmental challenges. Its objectives are linked to universal availability, equitable access, empowerment of parents, alignment of sectoral policies, laws and programmes, and effective leadership to realise the vision of the policy. 

Given this clear commitment to the importance of ECD, why then has the leadership of the country, amidst the national COVID-19 crisis, all but forgotten about young children and the sector which makes provision for their learning and development? 

The ECD sector is hardly negligible with more than 24 000 ECD centres in the country, providing care, developmental stimulation and early learning for over 2,4 million children, a mere 30% of whom receive subsidy from the Department of Social Development (DSD). This does not account for the many informal home-based ECD programmes throughout the country, that are run in small, often rural, poor communities. This segment of early education employs more than 110 000 ECD practitioners, two thirds of whom do not hold any formal qualification. 

Whilst large debates between government, parents and unions have taken place to determine the re-opening of schools, there has been little mention of the plight of younger children, the gaps in their early learning and the loss of income that has resulted in the ECD sector. The economic impacts on the sector has had no union muscle to negotiate its plight, and unlike teachers they do not continue to be paid. As ECD centres remain closed, there is widespread unemployment amongst staff and loss of revenue for those who own and manage the ECD centres, all while leaving parents with no childcare when many sectors resumed operations under lockdown level 3. 

Not only are children disadvantaged without the structured learning environment, but they are also denied the daily nutritious meals provided at ECD centres. With high levels of unemployment, young children are more likely to be denied having their basic needs met in the home, further complicated by possible psychosocial harm, higher risk if families are non-compliant with lockdown regulations, and increased levels of violence in the home. There is also the possibility of neglect when young children are left at home with inappropriate caretakers (e.g. sibling children). 

Of course, re-opening the ECD sector cannot be taken lightly. Not only is the DSD silent on the possible timing of this re-opening, but also on important policy issues and support that will be provided to an already disadvantaged sector. There is no conceivable way that the DSD’s budget would extend to match the readiness that was provided to schools by the Department of Basic Education. How will struggling ECD centres who have received no revenue through fees for the past 3 months, be able to afford the high costs of decontamination, PPEs and ongoing COVID-19 safety monitoring? 

And whilst public schools were supported with their re-opening and operations (however inequitably), who will be tasked with supporting the ECD sector (both formal and informal, registered and unregistered) with ensuring the safety of its staff, and parents dropping and picking children up, and especially of the children who are enrolled in the ECD centre? Or will ECD centres be subjected to little, if any, sporadic support by the DSD, only to increase the economic burden on them, while jeopardising the well-being of young children in their care?

In terms of timing, having seen 132 public schools in the Eastern Cape alone close so soon after re-opening, 775 closed nationally with over 500 children having tested positive. More grades transitioning back to school next Monday, our safety concerns increase, as we are likely to see an increase in cases and closures of more schools. It’s clear that the opening of ECD centres must be deferred until such time that the peak of the virus has passed, and that adequate support can be given to the ECD sector for its safe re-opening. And whilst ECD centres remain closed, government is also disturbingly silent on the issue of supplying home-learning packs for young children to use and the availability of alternate childcare options.  

By Varsha Chhagan, Save the Children South Africa 

About: Save the Children believes every child deserves a future. In South Africa and around the world, we give children a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We do whatever it takes for children – every day and in times of crisis – transforming their lives and the future we share.

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