Continuing confusion over when nursery schools and creches can reopen threatens both their future and that of the children who attend them, says an early childhood development expert.
Professor Eric Atmore, the director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development (CECD), which provides services and programmes countrywide, says hundreds of ECDs will struggle to stay open after being shuttered for three months of Covid-19 lockdown.
And he believes many children are more at risk from the continued closure of the ECDs than they are from Covid-19.
“Children depend on ECDs to get a nutritious meal, and children who live in at-risk communities may face child neglect and become victims to violence which has occurred recently.”
ECDs should also be reopened because parents needed to work, he said.
“Now, with nearly 95% of the workforce returning, parents want to know that their children are safe.”
Professor Atmore said reopening the ECDs should pose no problem as long as they followed Covid-19 health regulations, including regular sanitising, physical distancing and the wearing of masks.
On Monday Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu urged operators of ECD centres and partial care facilities across the country to complete an online self-assessment exercise before reopening.
The Department of Social Development said this is critical in determining the sector’s state of readiness to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Provincial departments are currently verifying submitted information to determine the state of readiness for the reopening of ECD programmes and/or partial care facilities, which provide an afterschool service.
To date, more than 6 700 ECD programmes and/or partial care facilities have completed this self-assessment exercise online, in addition to those who have made manual submissions to the provincial departments.
More than 51% of the online completions are from programmes that are registered or conditionally registered, as required in terms of the Children’s Act; whereas about 20% of completions are from those that have applied for registration.
The online self-assessment forms, which are accessible on the department’s website, were developed in consultation with the sector. The forms are also available at local Social Development offices and service points within which ECD centres or partial care facilities operate.
“As we prepare to reopen the sector, which we will announce in due course through directives, as per the requirements of the Disaster Management Act, it is critical that we ensure we have taken all necessary precautionary and control measures to uphold the best interest of our children,” said Ms Zulu.
“The self-assessment is critical in assisting the department to assess the sector’s Covid–19 response plan and the state of readiness. We know the important role that the sector plays in our country’s child protection system and its contribution to children’s emotional and cognitive development,” added Ms Zulu.
Upon submission of the self-assessment, the department will verify the information to determine the centre’s state of readiness.The verification process will include site visits to assess compliance with the minimum health, safety and social distancing measures, among others.
The department said the purpose of the self-assessment is to determine whether the ECD centres and partial care facilities meet the minimum requirements under the Disaster Management Act regulations
It also emphasised that no child may return to an early childhood development programme or partial care facility until such time that the minister has pronounced in the Government Gazette the date(s) and conditions of reopening.
It said to this effect, Ms Zulu will publish the directives pertaining the reopening of early childhood development programmes and partial care facilities after she has taken into consideration all requirements to address, prevent and combat the spread of Covid-19.
The CECD wants government to give R20 000 to all registered ECDs to help them get ready for reopening.
Professor Atmore says unregistered ECDs should get the same support as registered ones, because they were often in poor communities serving the neediest children.
Ananda Nel, from the provincial Department of Social Development, said they had continued to fund the ECDs they had supported prior to lockdown.
“The national Department of Social Development has issued a circular regarding preparation for the reopening of ECDs and after- school care facilities and programmes, as well as standard operating procedures and guidelines that provide measures to address, prevent and combat the spread of Covid- 19 within this space,” she said.
The provincial department, she said, was still reassessing the readiness of the ECDs to reopen, but it was up to Ms Zulu to say when that would happen.
Meanwhile, the CECD is trying to raise R2.4 million to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) for 600 ECDs.
To support the campaign, follow #PPEforECD on Facebook and Twitter or email CECD programme manager, Bridget Kahts, at firstname.lastname@example.org