South Africa’s early childhood development sector plays a critical role in providing early care and education, catering generally for children aged three to five in their pre-primary school years. Though it’s an essential service, this sector remains mostly informal. Government has not supported it well with the funding needed to provide quality early care and early learning services.
The majority of early childhood development centres therefore rely on fees paid by children’s caregivers. Services are out of reach for caregivers who cannot afford these fees. The sector employs mostly black African women and they bear the brunt of the funding limitations by working for low salaries or stipends.
These challenges within the sector were well documented even before COVID-19. The sector was ill-equipped to withstand further shocks and impacts on education, employment, hunger and mental health.
To understand early childhood development centre principals’ perspectives on how they had been affected by the pandemic, we interviewed 17 principals who worked in low- and middle-income communities, many of which were hard hit by the pandemic.
The most significant negative impact of the pandemic on early childhood development centres was the loss of revenue from fees, since many parents were unable to pay fees due to economic challenges. Most centres rely on these fees because government funding – only for registered centres – doesn’t adequately cover running expenses.
Many principals also reported lower numbers of children returning when centres reopened. This meant less revenue coming in – despite the need to keep paying staff and providing for the children in their care.
The implications of these financial challenges are far reaching. They have knock-on effects on the financial situation of centre staff, increased pressure on parents to help cover costs, and ultimately the children at these centres in terms of the resources available. While there are numerous non-governmental organisations which step in to meet these needs, additional financial assistance from government could go a long way to reduce the impact on staff, children and their families.
Early childhood development centres had to comply with safety requirements stipulated in a lengthy and daunting document from the Department of Basic Education when they reopened. The requirements included sanitising hands, surfaces, toys and learning materials, as well as physical distancing and no touching.
Principals went to great lengths to comply with these requirements, but they admitted that this was costly and overwhelming. Repeated closures when children or staff tested positive or were exposed to COVID-19 were chaotic, but principals emphasised the need to be safe.
Many principals felt responsible for accommodating children whose parents weren’t able to pay the fees. They acknowledged that many children relied on the nutrition provided at centres.
The principals didn’t want children to be left at home or unsupervised in their community. If there was no one at home to look after a child who was sick, this meant that they were sometimes still sent to the centre, with the potential to infect other children and staff. Not having somebody at home to look after a sick child was also a problem pre-COVID, but was reported much more frequently during the pandemic.
Principals believed that the pandemic had been harmful to the children in their care. Some felt that children were stressed, anxious and acting out (fighting, crying). They recognised that children were dealing with difficult home situations and disrupted routines. They also picked up on children’s emotional and social challenges, along with delays to their development as a result of time away from the centre.
“The younger ones they don’t know how to explain themselves. But you can see, by the way they act, and how they fight with each other, you talk with them, they start crying, because they are traumatised, they don’t know what to expect next. I see that they’re routine orientated, now everything is different…”
Principals described dealing with the impact of the pandemic on the centres as extremely stressful. They had to deal with financial challenges, complying with safety requirements, decision fatigue, and the impact of all of this on the children in their care. In spite of all of this, principals displayed resilience and a positive attitude.
They spoke about learning to cope with the safety requirements, being resourceful, and drawing on social support and their faith to cope:
“So, it has been good, the challenges, it also makes you realise it has swivelled round and because your love is children and the people you are working with, we are going to work like a bullet, and I speak to the staff very much on open communication, so I tell them look here this is the situation this is what we need to do.”
Early childhood development centres in South Africa, particularly in resource-challenged environments, not only provide early education for young children. They also provide safety, supervision, and nutrition – without which many of these children and their families would not cope.
Our findings underscore the importance of support needed for the early childhood development sector to enable centres to provide these essential services. Should centres not be able to provide these services, children lose more than just early learning opportunities.
The resilience and resourcefulness of principals is highly commendable. But it shouldn’t replace the systemic support that this sector needs from government, particularly in terms of funding. This support must include centre principals and practitioners. They carry much of the responsibility – and indeed the burden – of providing care and early learning to young children at a critical period of development.