Coronavirus

Covid-19: Children at risk as early childhood development centres close

By Sandisiwe Shoba 20 March 2020

The closure of early childhood development centres has left close to 2.3 million children homebound, with the responsibility placed on parents and caregivers to supervise them. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

Child safety, malnutrition and the impact on educational outcomes are just some of the risks associated with the closure of ECD centres across South Africa.

Following the declaration of the Covid-19 pandemic as a national disaster, the Department of Social Development announced that early childhood development (ECD) centres would be shut down from 18 March to 15 April.

According to Eric Atmore, the director and founder of the Centre for Early Childhood Development (CECD), close to 2.3 million children are now homebound, with the responsibility placed on parents and caregivers to supervise them.

“Large numbers will not have an adult or an older person to look after them, so it places children at risk,” said Atmore.

Neglect, abuse, abduction, trafficking and sexual exploitation are just some of the dangers these children are vulnerable to if left unsupervised.

Dumisile Nala, the national executive officer at Childline, urged parents to carefully consider who they were leaving their children with and how they would educate their kids about personal safety.

“It is about talking to some children who might be at home alone about how to keep safe. If they have to go out and buy bread or play, how do they keep safe? We also need to remind children that they are safer in numbers, or even if they have to go to the shops, a child must make sure they are not going there by themselves,” said Nala.

Beyond child safety, malnutrition is another cause for concern. ECD centres often run feeding programmes which for many children is the only meal they receive in a day.

Sonja Giese, the executive director at Innovation Edge, indicated that of the seven million children under six in SA, 65% live in households below the poverty line.

The closure of early learning centres could exacerbate these difficult circumstances, sparking an increase in child hunger and malnutrition, which leads to stunting.

“South Africa already has a very high rate of stunting (31% of children under five are stunted). This preventable health condition is caused by chronic malnutrition and undermines both the physical and cognitive development of a child,” explained Giese.

Partnerships between the public and private sector are also needed to ensure that no child goes hungry while ECD services are closed, said Giese.

Atmore emphasised that without proper nutrition children have lowered immunity to illnesses, in this case, Covid-19.

Marion Wagner from Breadline South Africa said their organisation was figuring out ways to ensure children were still fed while ECD centres are closed. One possibility is keeping their soup kitchens open, but implementing precautions.

“These children then can arrive at staggered times so they don’t infect each other. So, now, some of the children in the area can get food.”

It is now also incumbent on parents and caregivers to ensure children are aware of social distancing and hygiene methods to curb the spread of Covid-19. Children as young as two years old have been infected with the virus.

Nala said contact may be quite high among children, given their tendency towards physical play.

“Parents and schools, I want to believe, have done a lot to educate children around that. So it’s also about us being creative and talking to our kids about other forms of play, that would minimise contact with each other.”

She said children shouldn’t be bombarded with information but must know the basics such as frequent handwashing, washing their hands for 20-40 seconds at a time and how to cough and sneeze correctly.

However, where children do not have a parental figure to look after them, Atmore feels the risk for infection may be higher.

“Those children are not gonna be watched as stringently as they should be, and that’s going to lead to this virus taking hold in young children,” he said.

ECD centres themselves are facing a difficult dilemma, said Atmore. With parents not using ECD services for the time being, some are refusing to pay their monthly fee. As a result, staff may not get paid.

“Each individual ECD centre must make their own decisions on that,” said Atmore, “because those centres are autonomous.” He cautioned that managers should remember that staff are off work because of a government directive and not by choice.

Atmore said the ideal situation would be that the Department of Social Development offers a once-off grant to all ECD centres in quintiles one to three to help them survive the month.

“But that’s unlikely.”

Giese was concerned about the possible negative impact the shutdown would have on learning outcomes.

“Already, research suggests that less than half of our four- to six-year-old children are developmentally on track in areas such as early language, early numeracy, cognitive and executive functioning and fine motor coordination. 

“Access to high-quality early learning programmes has been shown to have a significant positive impact on learning outcomes (particularly for our poorest children). The disruption in service provision as a result of Covid-19 will undermine the gains we are starting to make.”

For the time being, Giese suggests that, where possible, children should access early learning material through children’s books and digital products such as mobile applications, educational websites, daily messaging for caregivers (via SMS or WhatsApp), chatbots and downloadable resources.

“Most of these can be accessed on a simple smartphone (or even feature phone in some instances), and most households have access to at least one smartphone. What households don’t have is data.

“This is a simple, scalable and ethical response to the crisis we are facing.” DM 

If you or a loved one are concerned that you may be infected with Covid-19, immediately call the national hotline on 0800 029 999 for advice and assistance.

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