“The profound costs borne by small children and families as a result of the ongoing nationwide lockdown and school closures will be felt for at least the next 10 years.” This is the opinion of Dr Nic Spaull and co-author Dr Servaas van der Berg of The University of Stellenbosch’s Department of Economics.

Their research report entitled Counting the Cost: COVID-19 school closures In South Africa and its impact on children, which was issued earlier this month, expresses particular concern for the plight of the youngest of our children, especially those between the ages of 0–6 years.

This appears to be one of the most badly bungled of the government’s decisions regarding lockdown management, largely one suspects, because the Minister of Social Development (DSD), Lindiwe Zulu seems to have been missing in action throughout. ECD Centres which fall under this minister’s purview cater for roughly 2.5 million pre-schoolers countrywide, according to Prof Eric Atmore of Cape Town’s Centre for Early Childhood Development.

So far, no indication has been given as to when these centres will reopen and in Atmore’s opinion, by the time this happens, between 10 and 15% of them catering for roughly 400 000 of the poorest children will have closed for good, due to lack of funds.

Nic Spaull points out that an unintended consequence of reopening the economy while schools and crèches remain closed for most children, has been largely overlooked. He adds: “Our analysis shows that if all employed workers return to work, there would be almost one million children below the age of six who would be left alone in households without an adult caregiver.

“While it is true that parents and caretakers would try and make arrangements for members of other households to take care of their children, many caretakers may not have the networks needed and may feel compelled to work to earn an income to support their child(ren). This is all because community-based early childhood development centres and pre-schools are still not allowed to operate despite the economy re-opening.”

Another anomaly defies logic. While it has been announced that Grade R classes attached to government primary schools will be allowed to reopen on 6 July, Grade R classes (also under the control of the Department of Basic Education) that are attached to ECD centres or are run by private NGOs like Child Welfare, are not allowed to do so. They will have to wait until the undefined date when ECD centres open. So while one set of Grade Rs steam ahead to make up for lost time, another set of children of the same age in the same community are deprived of this opportunity.

As it is, Professor Ursula Hoadley of UCT’s School of Education, makes the point in a recent Daily Maverick article that “These learners are in the most critical (foundation) phase of their schooling, where their entire educational careers rest on mastery of reading and number concepts in these early grades.

“A further complicating issue is that these children who have received no schooling and no curriculum input in their homes for three-and-a-half months will very likely experience a slump in their learning. We know from research in developed countries that this will affect children living in poor environments more, and especially in mathematics and reading.”

She draws the conclusion that on returning to school, most will require a period of revision before moving on to the next phase of learning, particularly with regard to numbers and remedial reading. They will need to ‘learn to read’ before ‘reading to learn.’

So when almost not a day goes by without our hearing of a small child who is missing, or has been raped or killed, most of them from impoverished communities, government officials appear to pay little attention to those who are either locked up in their houses or shacks while parents are at work, or are left to roam around the streets, sometimes under the ‘supervision’ of an older child. Not only are they in harm’s way, but their mental health is also in serious jeopardy; they are being deprived of developmental opportunities, so crucial at this age, and they are missing out on the nutritious meals they would normally be enjoying at their ECD centre.

The dangers of infection by COVID-19 which are inevitably raised by government are dealt with at great length by van der Berg and Spaull in their report. Not only are the chances of contracting the virus extremely low in small children, but so is the likelihood of their transmitting it to their teachers. They quote the South African Paediatric Association: “Teachers are not at high risk of being infected by children. Teachers are at a higher risk of contracting the virus from other adults (eg colleagues), at home or in the community (outside school).”

When it comes to early childhood mortality, in addition to their own similar findings, they quote Prof David Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University, who concluded: “In school kids aged 5–15 it is not only a tiny risk, it’s a tiny proportion of the normal risk.” They add: “He went on to say that the risk was so low that children were more likely to be struck by lightning (a chance of one in 1.7 million) than die of COVID-19 (one in 3.5 million).”

But wait. There has, at last, been some sign of life from the DSD, after months of barely a word. Last week a set of regulations arrived for all ECD centres, in preparation for their as yet undetermined opening – 61 pages of them! Betsey Joubert, ECD facilitator for Enlighten Education Trust in Hermanus has begun to work through this booklet with the principals of some of the approximately 74 registered and unregistered ECD and after-care centres in the Overstrand with which they work.

She agrees that a significant number of the small home-based crèches are unlikely to reopen. Most of the parents stopped paying fees during lockdown, with the result that ECD practitioners lost their jobs and where some centres were paying rent for their premises, this was impossible to continue. Greater pressure will undoubtedly be placed on those which have survived and will be asked to take in more children.

Listening to the litany of protocols listed by the DSD, is bemusing. They include the following: no group play allowed, no playing in the sandpit, no water play, no soft toys to be used, no sharing of crayons, scissors, paint brushes (each child to have their own set); children may play with blocks, but only one child at a time and the blocks must be sanitised between use; no child may be closer than 1 metre to another (although curiously, no masks are required). Children must be brought to school and collected individually, at allocated times, by a parent.

There might be an outside chance that reasonably well-resourced, sizeable centres might be able to manage these requirements, but to expect a small, threadbare community-based educare centre to implement the bulk of them, forget it. At any rate, the next step is for the staff of each centre to work their way through these protocols, make sure they understand them and then complete an online self-assessment form and implementation plan and return them to the Department with endorsement from an independent entity (in this case, Enlighten).

It will not be a question of first approved, first to open. By no means. It seems that all of the thousands of registered and unregistered ECD centres countrywide will have to be approved before any are allowed to reopen. The mind boggles as to when (or even if) this might be.

Quoting again from Counting the Cost: “Policy-makers and government leaders have an obligation to weigh up the costs and collateral damage of their policies, particularly for those most vulnerable, such as small children, the elderly and those in poverty. Millions of South African children’s education and mental health have been compromised…”

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