Umm Muhammed Umar
South Africa’s early childhood development sector plays a critical role in providing early care and education, catering generally for children aged three to five, in the pre-primary school years. Professor at MRC, WITS Developmental Pathways for Health Research, Catherine Draper, spoke to Radio Islam about the impact that COVID-19 had on childcare centres.
The childhood development sector referred to mainly the early childhood development centres such as preschool, creches, and Educare centres, which cater mainly to children aged 3 to 5 years old, but often younger as well. Prof Draper said, “Many of these are essentially privately run, with limited government support, and rely quite heavily on fees from parents and caregivers.” These centres had taken a huge knock as a result of the pandemic, which has had a severe impact on early childhood development. Prof Draper said that the sector was fragile “mainly because of this limited government support.” She said, “they received quite a small stipend and (are) reliant on these fees. And as you can imagine, you know, with the economic shocks of COVID, and the pandemic, you know, many parents were put in a position which was really difficult to pay those fees and ECD centres then obviously closed for a number of months during the high levels of lockdown.” She added that the centres, however, still had those overhead expenses. When the children returned, there were still huge costs that had to be covered such as paying the staff, and it became extremely stressful to plug the gaps created by children not attending. She said, “You know, many parents are able to say, well, let’s put our children online and do preschool online. So, there was just this big gap in terms of what they were able to offer during that time, and then managing the financial stress of that.” If the sector had been in a much stronger position, it would have been able to withstand the impact of the lockdown much better, but given that it was already fragile, the impact was significant.
Prof Draper interviewed 17 principals who worked in low- and middle-income communities. She said that they had been working with an organization called the ‘Foundation for Community Work’, in Athlone, Cape Town. The Foundation worked with thousands of families across the Western Cape, those with preschool attending children, but also with a number of families were not able to afford to send their children to preschool. These represented about a third of children in the three to five age group. Prof Draper said, “So there’s a huge sector of children who were not even able to access those services in the first place.”
According to the professor many of the smaller centres were unable to keep open because they did not have fees coming in. she said, “If parents had lost their jobs, or were not able to work, made worse by the pandemic, you know, that made it even harder for them to send their children to school because they had to pay fees.” She said that many of the principals knew parents who could not pay, but allowed the children to attend, if it was just a small number of children, rather than the child missing out on an education. But many of the smaller centres were forced to close down.
In order for the early childhood development sectors to recover from the impact of the pandemic, Prof Draper said that the call was for systemic governance support. She said that there was a move from ECD falling under the Department of Social Development, to the Department of Basic Education. She added that there were a number of things being put in place to strengthen the sector. Prof Draper said, “what we really wanted to highlight as well is that these ECD centres, these principal practitioners, you know, they have an enormous sense of responsibility to provide this critical care, not just education, but, you know, the nurturing and supportive environment, providing nutrition for many of these kids, every day at the ECD centres.” While the centres were resilient, government should be supporting them. Prof Draper said, “any plans to release support to the sector really needs to take into account that many of these are passionate, motivated, amazing women, fulfilling such an important need, and they really need to be factored in, in terms of support and care for them as well, which obviously then has a positive impact on the children, and a positive impact on families and communities as well.”