This paper comes from RISE Fellow Janeli Kotzé and co-authors. Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes can be an important factor in school readiness for children. This paper examines how COVID-19 has disrupted the function of ECD programmes in South Africa, and what the consequences of this disruption may be for children and their families.

New evidence suggests that over four months after the closure of ECD programmes on 18 March 2020, the ECD sector was likely to be operating at less than a quarter of its pre-lockdown levels. Of the 38% of respondents from the new NIDS-CRAM survey reporting that children aged 0–6 in their households had attended ECD programmes before the lockdown in March, only 12% indicated that children had returned to these programmes by mid-July, well after programmes were allowed to reopen. Using these findings, we estimate that just 13% of children aged 0-6 were attending ECD programmes by mid-July to mid-August compared to 47% in 2018. The last time that ECD attendance rates were as low as this was in the early 2000s. At this point it is not yet clear what proportion of these declines are only temporary, or whether there will be a lasting impact on ECD enrolment in the country. This dramatic contraction in the ECD sector relates to prohibitive costs to reopening 'safely' imposed by the regulatory environment, coupled with shocks to the demand side for ECD programmes (both in terms of reduced household incomes and parent fears of children contracting COVID-19). When viewed from a broader socio-economic lens, the threat of ECD programme closures across the nation will have impacts beyond ECD operators to the lives of millions of children, millions of households and millions of adults who rely on these ECD services. A swift intervention by government is necessary to save this important sector and limit the ripple effect of programme closures on multiple layers of society.

Please note: In responding to the COVID-19 impacts on the Early Childhood Development (ECD) sector, the policy environment changes and develops rapidly. The events reported here reflect developments until mid-September 2020.