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Closing nursery, pre-primary schools more harmful 

UNICEF-Uganda acknowledges that ‘Early Childhood Development (ECD) is key to a full and productive life, and to the progress of a nation.

When investments are made in mothers and young children, children’s risk of dying under the age of 5 is reduced, they stand a better chance of doing well at school and they are also more likely to break the ‘intergenerational cycle of poverty’.

The earliest years are the most crucial point of child development and attending early education lays the foundation for lifelong learning and supports children’s social and emotional development. We need to prioritise keeping early years settings open in full because of the clear benefits to children’s education and wellbeing and to support working parents. Caring for the youngest age group is not something that can be done remotely.

ECD in Covid-19 fight

The argument to allow preschool settings to reopen is presented with the consideration that they should be part of the wider national strategy to contain the spread of the coronavirus in the country whilst the role of early childhood learning in supporting parents and delivering the crucial care and education needed for our youngest children is sustained in the short and long term.

Therefore we believe that keeping these facilities closed is akin to blocking major parts of our community out of the solutions to the problem which in itself thwarts public health advancement of holistic approaches.

As we use the public health guidelines to highlight our commitment to care for all lives, we note an international education researcher; Andy Hargreaves’s study in which he notes that "A first class system of early childhood education is the hallmark of a caring and civilized society."

Health risks

Early years settings remain low-risk environments for children and staff. 0-5 year-olds continue to have the lowest confirmed rates of coronavirus of all age groups, and there is no evidence that the new variants of coronavirus disproportionately affects young children. Evidence shows that pre-school children are less susceptible to infection and are not playing a driving role in transmission.

There is no evidence showing that the new strain of the virus causes more serious illness in either children or adults and there continues to be strong evidence that children are much less susceptible to severe clinical disease than older people. Meaning that having these settings open should not affect ongoing control measures.

Underdevelopment and disorders

Attending an early years setting is highly valuable for all children, leading to positive social and emotional, language, and physical development. The lack of access to provision impedes children’s development significantly.

There is a risk of isolated young children developing issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, attachment problems or a sense of grief which could have fundamental and long-term effects.

Early years settings can be the most stable element in a child’s life and there is a heightened risk of safeguarding issues as vulnerable young children are not in regular contact with professional carers and other children at a time of increased financial and emotional stress. Remote contact and learning experiences cannot replace the need for human contact and interaction which is crucial to healthy development.

Poverty and low-incomes (most attributed to the pandemic) only exacerbates the loss endured by the very young children. Because the first six years of life is an incredibly sensitive period for brain development, deprivation during this time has profound and potentially long-term consequences.

Less access to early learning opportunities, among others, mean higher rates of physical and cognitive stunting. 

Human-capital

Children under the age of 5 make up the largest age group in the population structure, in 15-20 years these will be the core active population whose productivity is essentially founded on the education pillars (or lack of them) currently in existence.

This means that the decision to initiate young people straight into primary school deprives them of the strong founding pillars that are intended to build the life resilience-ability that will the define labour force productivity of the country in the nearby future.  

Increasing inequality

With an already wide income gap, we risk to have this gap widened by keeping these settings closed. Children that skip the formal element of early years typically start formal schooling at a distinct disadvantage, without the critical building blocks in place for early literacy, numeracy and executive functioning.

This learning loss is very difficult to “catch up” in later school years, especially in poor-performing schools and overcrowded classrooms with little or no capacity for remedial support.

It is probable that some children could benefit from alternative home-schooling interventions however, this is a tiny fraction of the high-income earning group mainly in urban areas, leaving the largest group of young people denied of a formal learning opportunity because remote learning or home schooling has the following challenges:

  • It is difficult to align home school or remote learning with the ECD curriculum.
  • Because of the activity based nature of learning in early years, suitable resources are not easily accessible at home hence many learners may experience learning loss in their social and communication development.
  • Increased vulnerability to child safety from impatience of parents attempting to teach, abuse from untrained adults such as housemaids.
  • A freeze on literacy developments as this area requires specified resources.
  • Enhancing learning difficulties such as dyslexia or speech impediments due to lack of specialised stimuli like as peer groups for speech development.

Examining all or some of the issues raised clearly shows that the ministry’s decision needs urgent revision and immediate U-turn to the short and long term benefits to all.

jmaserejje@elimisha.org

The author is director of Faculty Harris Academy, London UK & senior consultant at Elimisha Education (U)

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