Two children in Hanover Park, who rely on existing feeding schemes, were among the many in the country for whom access to food became more difficult during the lockdown. Picture: Esa Alexander
Two children in Hanover Park, who rely on existing feeding schemes, were among the many in the country for whom access to food became more difficult during the lockdown. Picture: Esa Alexander

As the second wave of Covid-19 ripples through SA, it is still unclear how many early childhood development (ECD) programmes will be able to reopen safely and successfully in the next few weeks. 

The stakes are high: before the virus hit SA, an estimated 3.3-million children had access to some form of ECD programme, of which 2.7 million are not registered with the government.  They include those offered in crèches, preschools, playgroups and childminding centres. They teach and stimulate children before they enter the formal school system and give them a better chance of success in later education. The workforce servicing these ECD programmes was 400,000 strong and largely made up of black women.

In reopening schools, it’s good to be cautious, obviously.  But the outcome of a project that Ilifa Labantwana launched in 2020 – the ECD Covid-19 response project – has shown that with the right support, even unregistered ECD services working in difficult circumstances can comply with all pandemic protocols and provide critical nutritional support to children.

Given the well-documented devastation of the pandemic on early childhood development, our ECD Covid-19 response project is aimed at helping unregistered ECD programmes reopen and provide nutrition to a large number of children younger than five.

The project, which began in September with the assistance of NGO partners The Unlimited Child, SmartStart, and Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading, has reached over 1,750 unregistered ECD sites across SA.  These sites have been given Covid-19 compliance support packs, monthly staff vouchers and fortnightly food vouchers, among other things.

It’s had a major impact: besides the 30,000 children who’ve been helped, more than 3,600 ECD staff members have also received monthly food vouchers that have helped them survive without income. The vouchers were sent by SMS and redeemed at local spaza shops. 

Thanks to this project, a high proportion of unregistered ECD sites have been able to reopen and offer safe services in their communities, including providing food parcels to children who come to the sites.

This has shown that virtual food vouchers are a valuable tool in helping young children during an unprecedented crisis, like a pandemic.

To get a sense of the impact, consider that by September last year, all the centres were closed. But by October, largely thanks to the support they’d got, 62% had been able to reopen and provide services again. In some provinces this number was as high as 80%.

This was one of the findings of a survey our partners conducted of 1,090 ECD programmes that participated in the project.

The survey showed that while ECD programmes had, on average, seen about half the children on their books return by the last quarter of the year, most parents could not resume paying fees at that stage. This is why the voucher support was so crucial in keeping even unregistered ECD sites open.

The Covid-19 compliance support packs we delivered contained masks for adults and children, temperature guns, spray guns for sanitising, sanitiser tablets, duct tape for social distancing protocols, rubber gloves, bleach and other cleaning equipment.

Because of this, 91% of those sites had proper Covid-19 screening in place for children, parents and staff by the end of November, while 90% had Covid-19 communication material like posters. Moreover, at 94% of the visited sites, all staff members were observed to be wearing face masks correctly; while 87% had adequate handwashing stations.

Critically, the project has also proved that spaza shops can play a key role in supply chains — providing nutritious food like eggs, tinned fish, beans and fresh vegetables — where needed.

These vouchers, we don’t take them for granted,” says Fikile Poka, a principal of an ECD programme in Soweto. “They came timely. The need is there.”

Vouchers will continue to be provided as children go back to schools and until mid-April. It’s a project that illustrates how these ECD sites are a critical part of our landscape, particularly when the rest of society is under assault from a pandemic.

*Brooks is the ECD Financing and Systems Manager at Ilifa Labantwana, which works to provide universal access to quality early childhood development. Hartnack, a social anthropologist, is working with Ilifa Labantwana on the ECD Covid-19 Response Project.

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