The ECD COVID Response Project has always been as much about gathering lessons to feed into long-term systemic change in the ECD sector, as it is about shorter-term relief and support to individual ECD sites and the children they serve during the COVID-19 crisis.
Through our three implementing partners (SmartStart, The Unlimited Child [TUC] and Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading [VPUU]), we are gathering information on a number of crucial areas, including the ability of unregistered ECD services to comply with health and safety protocols relating to COVID-19 with limited support; the role of NGOs in supporting and monitoring such services; the efficacy of ECD site-level food vouchers as a means of providing children with nutritional support; the ways in which ECD sites can become nutrition hubs in their communities; and the role of local food supply chains and neighbourhood “spaza” shops in providing for the nutritional needs of ECD services.
Our three implementing partners have been conducting visits to all of the participating ECD sites in November where they have been administering a survey which explores all of these areas. We will be sharing the results of this survey in later blogs and articles.
Adding to this detailed research process, on 26 November Ilifa Labantwana also visited one of the project communities; an informal settlement called Siqalo near Philippi in the Western Cape, where VPUU is supporting four ECD sites. We were keen to observe the conditions in these ECD sites, and to see how they had managed to use their COVID compliance support pack and the food vouchers which they have received during the project.
Siqalo is a small and fairly recent informal settlement adjacent to the Philippi horticultural area, where many of its residents seek part-time employment. It is characterised by closely packed tin shacks and wooden wendy houses on the undulating Cape Flats dune sand. Siqalo is on private land, but is serviced with portable toilets by the City of Cape Town. Stand pipes have yet to be provided, but many residents have arranged illegal connections to City water pipes running through the area. Likewise, Siqalo is not electrified although a few residents have managed to tap into passing cables along the nearby Jakes Gerwel drive.
We visited three ECD sites in Siqalo and learnt about the context in which ECD services are offered in the settlement. The first, Sesona Educare Centre, is the best provisioned with a surprisingly large outdoor play area, complete with wooden play equipment, and a small vegetable garden. Three wooden wendy houses serve as the classrooms and kitchen. The site operators are clearly proud of their work, displaying their qualifications on the wall along with other educational and health posters.
The second site we visited, Masincedane, was a crèche housed in the owner’s home, which is a cramped tin shack. The contrast with Sesona was clear. The third site, New Beginnings, was also housed in a small shack with two rooms, but like Sesona, the principal takes a lot of pride in the space which is used solely for her business. All three sites cater for around 20-25 children under normal circumstances, but currently have less than half of their normal cohort attending regularly.
In all three cases, many parents have been reluctant to send their children back to ECD sites due to concerns around COVID-19 or their inability to pay fees. Those who have sent their children back are not yet in a position to pay fees, but the support from the COVID Response Project has allowed these sites to reopen and to serve the children anyway. The three sites had clearly benefitted from the compliance support packs they have received through the project, which has allowed them to reopen. Sesona Educare Centre has impressive COVID safety protocols in place, with a number of handwashing stations (enabled by the provision of tippy taps), hand sanitiser, and posters displayed on mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing. The staff and children wear masks and the children were each stationed apart, at their own tables. A register of everyone entering the site is kept, complete with the required symptom checks. The only challenge at this site was that the batteries for their temperature gun had run low. However, this site proves that unregistered ECD services are willing and able to comply with the health and safety protocols and standards, even in an informal settlement context.
The second site, Masincedane crèche, by contrast has limited safety protocols in place, despite having received a compliance support pack. Some handwashing stations are set up, but the register and posters, along with masks, are not well enforced. New Beginnings, however, did have handwashing and registration stations, while all children and staff wore masks, and the temperature gun was in working order. The compliance pack had allowed the site to meet the reopening requirements.
The food vouchers received through the project had also been gratefully utilised. In the latter two sites, the staff are cooking daily meals for those children who attend, while at Sesona they are cooking for attending children and providing small food parcels to the families of other children who would normally be attending. None of these sites have experienced any difficulties in receiving their vouchers and redeeming them at local spaza shops. In the case of Masincedane crèche, they used part of the first site voucher to buy paint and hired a local artist to paint a colourful cartoon-themed mural on the side of the shack, advertising it as a crèche. While counter to what the vouchers are meant for, this does assist the business and shows that with support, informal ECD services do look to invest in small improvements in their sites. The owner has subsequently only bought the recommended foods with her vouchers.
At all three sites, the operators are hopeful that the support they have received will give them momentum to reopen fully in the new year, and to attract their full cohort of children back, with the parents once again able to pay fees. Without this assistance, they would not have been able to reopen, or provide nutritional support to the children in their community.
The visit to these sites allowed the Ilifa project team to obtain a small insight into their COVID compliance and feeding dynamics, and the operational context of ECD sites at the moment. More such visits will be conducted in January, to feed into the overall learning from the project.