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Opening crèches is still pending

The future of many crèches and early childhood development (ECD) centres in the basin hangs in the balance, as the re-opening of these facilities is still uncertain.

Mainstream schools were re-opened for certain grades by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) at the beginning of this month and a tentative date of Monday 6 July has been announced for Grade Rs registered with the DBE to return to the classroom. Yet the national Department of Social Development (DSD) remains mum on its plans to reopen crèches and centres.

Principals and owners of ECDs in the Helderberg have expressed their concerns and shared the challenges they have faced since the implementation of lockdown nearly three months ago. Most notably, most highlighted the lack of communication from DSD as one of their leading concerns at this time.

Storm Muller of the Jelly Babies Educational Daycare Centre in Somerset West said the department is creating confusion on when ECDs are allowed to open. “We have not received any clarity on opening dates or protocols for when we open,” she said. “We are willing to do whatever it takes to open our doors.

“Research shows that children have far less Covid-19 symptoms than adults, and do not in most cases even infect one another. So the risk is not the children’s health, but the fact that our schools will cease to exist if we cannot open our doors soon.”

Muller added that many schools have had a loss of income of more than 65%, and parents are deregistering their children owing to the uncertainty. “They would rather employ a nanny than keep paying school fees,” she said. “We cannot blame them . . . What else can they do with their children now that they can return to work?

“We have not benefited from any relief funding and had no help from DSD. It has not asked us for input or suggestions, or given us anything that could help us at this time. Many ECDs in the Helderberg will close their doors, not due to Covid-19, but DSD’s lack of support.”

Emily Steward, principal of Emily’s Play School and chairperson of the Sir Lowry’s Pass Educare Forum, says only four of the 13 ECDs in the village are registered with DSD and are consequently subsidised. Despite this, they are still battling, as parents refuse to pay the reduced monthly school fees.

“We have been blessed with donations of food packages and ingredients to give cooked meals to the children, but the need also lies with teachers, who are not receiving salaries in this time,” Steward said.

“We have a real need to start working, so that our schools can start generating an income again. Of the 70 children registered at my school, only four of the parents have paid the reduced fees of R150, and the DSD subsidy allows us to use only 40% for teachers’ salaries. As many of the sponsors are taking care of the children’s needs, donations of food hampers for teachers at this time are really needed.”

Leanne Keet, founder of local NPO Masikhule, agrees communication from DSD is important in the foreseeable future, especially as government focuses on the re-opening and support of registered sites only. “The reality is that unregistered ECDs constitute the majority of this sector and provide services to the majority of poor children in our communities,” she said.

“In most cases, their unregistered status is not of their making, but can be attributed to challenges within registration policies, legislation and municipal by-laws that do not take into account the realities of community-based ECDs. This is the ideal opportunity for government to fast-track the registration process and implement levels of partial registration to ensure all centres are accounted for and have a voice.”

Keet added that communication between DSD and the DBE must be improved, and that the Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the disparities between communities. She said: “This presents an urgent opportunity to acknowledge shortfalls and gaps in the management of the ECD sector, and to meet the challenges with decisiveness, leadership and insight.

“The sector has been completely disregarded, and there is a need for a stronger voice within the ministry to advocate for the rights of ECDs in the country.”

Masikhule, founded by Keet 15 years ago, focuses on supporting crèches, principals and teachers in the basin for their betterment. It currently works with more than 70 centres in the Helderberg and surrounds.

During lockdown, Masikhule has continued its support of schools and their staff, Keet said, through the sharing of vital and accurate information. It has shared daily activities for parents to help children, distributing age- and language-appropriate learning materials, and distributing food and vouchers. It has also assisted financially through significant partnerships, with the payment of stipends to staff of 17 ECDs and buying data for principals.

“We will continue with our food relief programmes for as long as the need exists, and we have the means to do so,” Keet said. “We are now channelling our efforts into developing and implementing our Covid-19 Readiness Programme to include all the protocols, training and support an ECD centre will require on reopening. Through funding, we plan also to provide readiness kits with sanitiser, buckets, masks, and so on, for approximately 40 ECD centres.”

Keet said Masikhule is in regular contact with DSD and work groups to ensure the final ECD Requirements Bill is relevant, practical, achievable and indiscriminate.

Esther Lewis, spokesperson for the provincial DSD, confirmed that confusion has arisen from the Government Gazette concerning DBE’s stating that ECDs would reopen on 6 July. “It must be noted that when DBE refers to ECDs it is referring to independent schools, which have Grade R classes,” she said. “To clarify, all ECDs and partial care centres registered by Social Development are to remain closed. The re-opening dates have to be determined by national Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu. The dates have not been announced or communicated yet.”

Lewis added that the national DSD, with its provincial counterparts and national social service organisations, are developing a framework and protocol for the re-opening of partial care facilities. “This is an important part of the state of readiness for the re-opening, and a date will be determined afterwards as will a framework for re-opening, to be widely communicated.”

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