Early childhood development (ECD) centres continue to be severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic even as other education sectors return to normalcy, including classes at schools returning to full capacity.
Nursery schools and crèches – or ECD centres in sector and government speak – accept children from birth to six years old and thus play an important role in their formative years. The effects of having to close because of lockdowns have been worsened by the Department of Social Development’s delay in paying out money from the R496 million that was allocated to the sector as part of an employment stimulus relief fund to help it recover.
Little Champs nursery school in Tembisa, east of Johannesburg, is one example of the devastation that Covid-19 has caused. Beverly Tlharaka, 35, founded it in 2016 to provide a much-needed service to her community. Everything was fine for a while, but then the pandemic hit.
When classes were suspended because of the hard lockdown in March 2020, parents stopped paying and Little Champs’ only source of income dried up. The centre had 34 children and provided an income for two ECD practitioners, including Tlharaka, as well as a cook. The cook earned R1 500 a month and the ECD teacher R2 500. However, only 10 children returned when the tough restrictions were lifted in late July that year.
As a result, Tlharaka had to let the ECD teacher go without pay and reduce the cook’s hours and salary to R1 000. She also combined classes to save money, promising to rehire the other practitioner once more children returned. But after months of hardship, Little Champs closed down in November 2020. “It was just too much,” said Tlharaka. “I was in agony. I had no choice but to close.”
Georgina Hloka, 32, principal at New Hope crèche in Tembisa, tells a similar story. When parents lost their jobs because of the pandemic, they couldn’t pay their children’s fees. Hloka, who employed three ECD practitioners and a cook, also had to lay off some of them to save money. New Hope had 40 children prior to Covid but only 15 returned in September 2020.
Hloka would buy groceries for the laid-off workers whenever possible. At least all her employees returned in 2021, as did most of the children, apart from those who went on to primary school.
Show us the money
Hloka is concerned about the lack of state support the sector receives. Her application for money from the employment stimulus fund is still pending. “I believe that the problem is on their side. Why haven’t we got our funding yet?” she said, adding that her employees distrust her because they cannot understand why the relief funds have not been paid. “They [the department] keep giving us false hope.”
Tlharaka has not been notified of her application’s status. “They’ve been silent. I never heard whether or not my application was accepted,” she said.
Numerous attempts to obtain comment from the department on why the relief funds have not yet been disbursed went unanswered.
Mmatsetshweu Ruby Motaung, director of the non-profit organisation Tree, which specialises in early education training and resources, says the ECD sector had many challenges even before Covid. ECD programmes are mostly run by non-profits and subsistence or micro social entrepreneurs, most of whom are Black women. Small and informal, their enterprises are operated from home or rented venues with only a few staff, who earn subsistence stipends and have no formal employment contracts or benefits.
Tlharaka is a case in point. She ran Little Champs from her home. Now that she is unemployed, she rents out the two rooms that used to house the crèche to provide for her three children. Tlharaka’s sister and her two children also live with her.
In a report in April 2020 titled The Plight of the ECD Workforce: An Urgent Call for Relief in the Wake of Covid-19, six organisations asked the government to support the sector. “The majority of ECD operators have received no support. Their funding comes from user fees, which caregivers either cannot or will not pay. As a result, principals cannot pay their employees or cover their rent. The sudden loss of income has put ECD operators and their employees in a financial bind. The majority of ECD operators and their employees are Black women who are breadwinners,” the report stated.
One of the organisations, Ilifa Labantwana, subsequently launched a Covid-19 Response Project in September 2020 that demonstrated what can happen when ECD centres get help. Ilifa Labantwana raised R36 million to run the project, which was aimed at providing nutrition to vulnerable children and ensuring that unregistered ECD sites could reopen as soon as possible.
All 1 700 unregistered ECD sites participating in the project had closed in response to the pandemic. But by October 2020, 62% had reopened with help from the organisation. By the end of 2020, 67% of sites had reopened and by March 2021 the figure was up to 86%.
Covid-19 compliance support packs enabled many ECD sites to fully comply with reopening protocols. These packs included items such as sanitiser, cleaning products and personal protective equipment. Water support was also provided to 284 ECD sites according to their needs. “The state should recognise that unregistered ECD sites can comply with health and safety protocols if supported,” said Ilifa Labantwana in its executive summary as part of a report on the project.
One suggestion Ilifa Labantwana made from lessons learnt is that the government fund nutrition programmes for young children. “This project has shown that providing nutrition through ECD programmes, regardless of registration status, can play a major role in providing nutrition to children aged 0-5 years. Government funding for nutrition should be channelled to ECD sites to achieve this. A separate funding stream delinked from registration compliance should be put in place,” said the report.
“I believe that if the government had bought us food and paid ECD practitioners, I could have run the centre with just the school fees,” Tlharaka said.
This article was produced by the Africa Women Journalism Project in partnership with the ONE Campaign and the International Center for Journalists.