Although the 68 day-national lockdown prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the entire education sector hard, it has perhaps hit pre-primaries, aka preschools, hardest. In Karnataka, 185 standalone preschools are reportedly up for sale.
Pre-primaries have been particularly impacted by the national lockdown ordered by the Central government on March 25, because the popular perception is that preschools are mere daycare and unstructured play centres for infants and toddlers of double income working parents, and not much is lost if tiny tots don’t attend play-learn classes. Although this perception has changed in recent times with a growing number of educationists proclaiming its vital importance, medical practitioners advise caution against sending youngest learners to preschools in a hurry in these pandemic times.
“There are very few reported coronavirus positive cases among youngest children because they’ve been secluded at home during the lockdown. They should be retained at home at least for another two-three months as they have low immunity. It is better that they are not sent to preschool as yet,” says Dr. Gururaj Biradar, consultant, pediatric and neonatology department at Manipal Hospitals, Bangalore.
However, the Bangalore-based Karnataka Council of Pre-Schools (KCPS, estb.2015), which has a membership of 2,000 private preschools statewide, differs. “Most private preschools in the state follow safety protocols well beyond government prescribed norms. Therefore, parents should not hesitate to send youngest children to school after checking out their infrastructure and safety protocols. Keeping little children locked up at home for too long is not advisable for their psychological well-being and loss of very important professionally administered ECCE (early childhood care and education),” says Pruthvi Banwasi, secretary of KCPS and promoter of Roots Montessori (estb.2004) which runs four preschools in Bangalore with an aggregate enrolment of 200 children.
Priyanka Thareja Khurana, centre head of Indus Early Learning Centre (IELC, estb.2011), ranked Bangalore’s #1 proprietary preschool in the EW India Preschool Rankings 2019-20, endorses this viewpoint. “Children in their early years need stimulation and socialisation. Imprisoning them at home and denying them professionally delivered ECCE is not a good idea. Modern day informed opinion is almost unanimous that preschool learning is the foundational block of all learning,” says Khurana, an alumna of Southern Methodist University, Dallas, USA, who has 13 years pre-primary teaching experience in the US and India, and was appointed principal of IELC, which has an enrolment of 120 children, in 2016.
Therefore, on May 30, KCPS submitted a memorandum to state education minister S. Suresh Kumar requesting permission to reopen preschools at the earliest. Over 500,000 private preschools, anganwadis, standalone play and daycare centres in Karnataka including an estimated 40,000 in Bangalore, with an aggregate enrolment of 1.5 million children have been shut for more than 60 days. These are mainly small proprietorial schools promoted by women and they are in severe financial straits with new admissions, summer camps and all other activities suspended. Unsurprisingly, most have stopped paying teachers and other staff salaries.
Dr. Swati Popat Vats, president of the Mumbai-based Podar Jumbo Kids chain with 498 preschools panIndia and founder-president of the Early Childhood Association of India (estb.2011) which has a membership of 3,800 preschools countrywide, warns that if a large number of the country’s private preschools are forced to shut down and lay off thousands of teachers and support staff, Indian education will suffer a severe setback. “The temporary alternative to sending little children to brickand-mortar preschools is to actively engage them with brief one-hour video chats by qualified ECCE professionals. This limited screen time option will ensure continuity of formal ECCE for the next few months. Preschools and anganwadi teachers should also involve parents by prescribing activities which ensure joyful learning at home during these stressful times,” says Popat vats.
This is good advice. It offers anxious parents the option of restarting their youngest children’s preschool learning at home. Against the backdrop of growing awareness of the importance of professionally administered ECCE, it offers a via media between prolonged suspension of early learning and the health risk of youngest children venturing to preschools until the Covid-19 crisis blows over.
Akhila Damodaran (Bangalore)