It has been more than seven months since 5-year-old Nayla last set her foot in her kindergarten, located in one of Jakarta's slum areas near the flood-prone Ciliwung river basin. Her school has been closed since COVID-19 broke out in Indonesia in March. At her 3-by-5 meter home, Nayla now spends her days playing with her neighbor’s cats and occasionally watching YouTube videos on her mother's mobile phone.
Nayla’s story mirrors that of many children in Jakarta and across the country. While experts claim that the early childhood years are important milestones in a person's life, many young children in Indonesia are missing out on school, recreation, interaction with their peers and in general, their childhood, because of the health crisis.
Worse, many parents with children below 6 years of age have decided to stop sending them to school, citing financial difficulties and health concerns. With the low enrolment at early childhood schools and centers, the fates of early childhood teachers are also on the line. Many people who run preschools and kindergartens have had to let go of their staff, sometimes their most experienced teachers, to try and survive what is looking to be a lengthy process of recovery.
As a teacher and an owner of a daycare center, I am no exception. Our daycare center has remained closed since April, and after several meetings with the local government and officials, we concluded that perhaps it would be best to wait out the pandemic before resuming our operation, more likely in mid-2021.
While participating in a webinar hosted recently by Statistics Indonesia (BPS) on the importance of achieving the country's target for the 2030 Early Child Development Index (ECDI), I therefore asked myself if early childhood education mattered anymore at this point.
Nobel laureate in economics James Heckman discovered in his research that quality early childhood education provided a persistent boost in socio-emotional skills, which had a greater effect on the later-life outcomes of an individual. For instance, it can lead to a 65 percent reduction in lifetime violent crimes, a 40 percent reduction in lifetime arrests and a 20 percent reduction in unemployment.
Yet, the pandemic is painting a very different picture. The majority of early childhood centers are struggling to stay afloat, parents with young children are struggling with home-schooling, and early childhood educators are losing their jobs and having to make ends meet by taking odd jobs or offering tutoring lessons seven days a week.
And most importantly, our poor young children are being unable to sit still during their online classes, becoming bored out of their minds as they are constrained and confined within the walls of their homes. They are staring more often than not at their borrowed mobile phones and laptops, with hardly any scheduled physical and cognitive activities that are supposed to do wonders for their brains in terms of psychological and mental development.
If early childhood education is so important, why aren’t the government and other stakeholders investing more in this? For most parents, it is a matter of priorities. In a household of four or more members, the education of the older children in primary or secondary school is the greater priority. The education of younger children is usually pushed aside as they wait for the “scraps”from their older siblings to finish their distance learning classes.
In the case of Nayla, if her school gives her an assignment, she has to do it on the weekends, because during the weekdays, the only mobile phone in her house is used by her older brother and her mother, who cleans houses part-time.
Overall, the health crisis has had a huge impact on our children’s emotional, social and mental health and wellbeing, and it has been hardest on children like Nayla who live in poverty and are digitally excluded. The pandemic clearly exacerbates inequality.
Even when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, we need to grasp the fact that learning for our young children will no longer be the same. Major adjustments must be made before it is safe for our children to return to school, and in-person interactions might not be available for a much longer period. There is a need to design a proper post-pandemic plan for early childhood education that is holistic and integrated, and which takes into account the prolonged lack of stimulation our young learners have experienced.
There is no easy solution to overcome this calamity, but it must start with every one of us, and it must start now. Solutions such as equipping our young learners with fun and engaging weekly activity kits, providing more training and coaching to help parents educate their children at home, channeling early childhood teachers into the many education projects in government and the private sector, or providing special incentives as well as tax reductions for early childhood education centers are some of the right investments to make right now.
Take, for instance, our neighbor Australia. During the epidemic there, the Australian federal government stepped in to provide a childcare subsidy of up to 100 percent for low-income families, which allowed working parents to place their children in the childcare system while they remained part of the productive workforce. The initiative supported the families of 13 million children in childcare and maintained the jobs of more than 200,000 staff in the early childhood education sector.
It is not too late for us yet, but we should not wait any longer. Just like the government's structure for early childhood education, keeping our young children educated, entertained and excited about learning is a multibranch, multidimensional, multidisciplinary commitment, even though they can only do so from home for now.
The writer is a lecturer at Atmajaya University, Jakarta, and a cofounder and owner of an early childhood center in South Jakarta.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.