Preschool teachers decry not getting Covid-19 jabs

While those who fall under the basic education department get priority vaccinations, early childhood development practitioners are treated as if they – and their young charges – do not matter.

Early childhood development (ECD) practitioners have expressed outrage at being excluded from the government’s vaccination rollout programme targeting teachers and school staff.

Thokozile Fumhe, 47, the principal of Aspiring Graduates in Reiger Park in Boksburg, Gauteng, says ECD practitioners are as important as teachers in primary and high schools. “I feel left out and sad at the same time. We should be given the same priority as the teachers, as we look after the children of almost everyone who is working,” she said.

A furious Tanya Potgieter, 50, who runs two centres – Happy Hearts Junior Academy and Happy Hearts Senior Academy – in Elsburg, Germiston, agrees with Fumhe. She says to exclude ECD practitioners from the vaccine rollout is “bullshit”. 

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“Why are we once again left out? Why is it that the value of our industry isn’t seen or recognised? While we are providing a huge service to the nation, it seems that our government doesn’t regard us as an important function of almost every facet of life. Leaving us out of the vaccine rollout helps us understand better how little we matter. So what’s new?” 

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, in a media statement dated 19 June, announced the vaccination rollout for teachers and support staff in the basic education sector. ECD teachers fall under the Department of Social Development, but the plan is to move them to the basic education sector from 1 April next year. 

Potgieter has a total of 22 teachers and support staff at Happy Hearts. The junior and senior academies combined cater to children from the age of three months up to those in grade 7 who need after-school care. She says although the ECD sector is often overlooked, not considering its teachers and staff for vaccination “is the next level of ignorance from our government”. 

An invaluable service

The latest Covid-19 regulations announced on 27 June included that schools and institutions of higher education would be closed for contact classes from 30 June, whereas ECD centres would remain open. As a result, both Fumhe and Potgieter decided to keep their preschools going. 

“We are offering a service to our community that people cannot go without,” said Potgieter. “After I added to my WhatsApp status that we will remain open, I received countless messages of gratitude from parents who don’t have anywhere else to take their children.” But, she added, it would have been much safer if ECD practitioners were part of the vaccine rollout initiative for teachers.

The decision to remain open against the backdrop of the third wave comes with a high risk. Some of Potgieter’s staff members have already reported being ill. “[Two weeks ago] we worked with less than 11 staff members due to us sending staff home with so-called symptoms,” said Potgieter. This led to staff shortages and put strain on her team.

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The psychological impact of the pandemic, compounded by stress over finances, has also affected Potgieter and her staff. “The big thing is people taking their children out of school until a wave has passed. In turn, this leads to financial losses.”

Fumhe employed four practitioners and had 78 children ranging from three months to six years old under her care at the start of the pandemic. But with the surge in infections, there are now fewer children enrolled and the number of staff members has been reduced. “Operating without being vaccinated poses a lot of threat as the numbers of those who tested positive are high and keep rising. And some of those are the parents of learners in our care,” Fumhe said.

She decided to stay open in an effort to remain financially sustainable and limit the amount of jobs lost at her centre. “I will remain open because parents will not pay if the school is closed,” she said.

New Frame has previously reported that Potgieter and Fumhe were struggling to stay afloat following the outbreak of the coronavirus’ second wave. The government’s lack of a proactive response could hurt them further now that President Cyril Ramaphosa has placed South Africa in level four lockdown. 

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During the first and second waves of the pandemic, Potgieter’s centres didn’t have any staff members infected with the virus. However, now some staff members have tested positive for Covid-19, leaving the businesses vulnerable. 

“We are now shortly into this new Covid-19 wave and one of my staff is hospitalised. Two of them are very ill at home. Myself and my daughter [the co-owner] are also sick at home with a mild case of Covid-19,” said Potgieter, adding that vaccinations for ECD practitioners could mitigate the situation. 

“We have no support at all from the government,” said Fumhe, adding that ECD centres did not even qualify for help with personal protective equipment.

Weighing the positive vs the negative

Mildred Bopoto, ECD programme manager at the Ikamva Labantu Charitable Trust in the Western Cape, says the move to keep the centres open has both positive and negative outcomes. “[The] positive is that the livelihoods of the ECD workforce are not taken away and the children continue receiving the much-needed developmental stimulation, nutrition and they are in a safe environment when parents are at work. 

“Negative [is] that these workers can contract the Covid-19 virus and fall ill, meaning that when they are sick they are not able to take care of the children in their care and they risk passing the virus to their loved ones back at home.”

Bopoto adds that the social development department’s silence regarding the availability of vaccines for preschool teachers and staff “is very worrying”. The ECD sector has always experienced a lack of support from the government, she says, and now it is battling to survive under conditions worsened by Covid-19. 

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She also points out that if practitioners test positive or get sick from the virus, it contributes to learning losses. “This will affect the children’s overall development, and the time lost will not be regained as the children are getting older and moving closer to being part of formal schooling.” 

A measure of relief for the ECD sector may have come on 2 July when Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu announced during a media briefing that her department was “at an advanced stage in negotiations with the Department of Health to ensure the inclusion of the social sector’s frontline workers in the priority groups for vaccination”. 

“These include men and women who continue to provide services to vulnerable groups and serve our nation as … ECD practitioners … Further announcements will be made in the coming days in this regard,” said Zulu.

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