It’s a morning ritual that most parents in Singapore are familiar with. Every morning from 7am onwards, many will drop their children off at childcare or school before they head to work.

Not so much any more for a while, from next Wednesday (Apr 8), after our prime minister announced that all schools and institutes of higher learning will shift to full home-based learning, while pre-school and student care centres will suspend services until May 4. This is a part of a large swathe of safe distancing measures announced to act as a national “circuit breaker” in the fight against Covid-19.

On Friday (April 3), it was reported that a teacher from My First Skool in Rivervale Crescent had contracted Covid-19. Last week, the outbreak at PAP Community Foundation (PCF) Sparkletots Fengshan cluster and the subsequent precautionary four-day closure of 360 PCF Sparkletots centres illustrated just how vulnerable early childhood educators are to the spread of the virus.

While childcare services will remain open for those who are working in essential services such as healthcare, the majority of parents with young children would have to find ways of caring for their children during this period.

This new development in the fight against Covid-19 reminds us just how childcare services are a necessity if both father and mother have to work. While grandparents are helpful, it is not always feasible or fair to have them take care of the children for such long hours. Grandpa and grandma can keep an eye on kids, but they aren’t educators themselves. Not to mention that they might need a break too!

According to the Department of Statistics Singapore, childcare centres in Singapore had an enrolment rate of 74.5% in 2018, of which 115,626 students were enrolled in full-day programmes (which start from 7am and end at 7pm).

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Healthcare workers and other frontliners deserve all the praise and thanks for keeping Singaporeans safe by containing and reducing the impact of the outbreak, but early childhood educators form part an important group of people serving the community as well.

When the national circuit breaker is lifted and the schools and childcare centres reopen, the challenges that they have will remain.

Early childhood educators are the heroes we need in the COVID-19 fight
Image Source: Shutterstock/Chaay_Tee

While many of us will probably go back to practising split-teams, safe distancing at workplaces or work-from-home initiatives, early childhood educators are exempted from such directives due to the nature of the job and the shortage of manpower in the early childhood industry. To make things worse, relief teachers are only allowed to work at one centre throughout this period, reducing the number of available staff across Singapore even further.

There are also no changes to the number of students in an educator’s charge per day – some handling up to 18 children at a time. Teachers are expected to educate students on social distancing, but in reality it is difficult to stop children from interacting and socialising with their peers. After all, that is what preschool is all about.

For children who have to serve their leave of absence (LOA) or Stay Home Notice (SHN), teachers also have to plan and send out take-home activities to ensure these students do not fall behind in the curriculum.

In a move that seems prescient now,  some childcare centres have asked teachers to video themselves conducting lessons as a preemptive measure in the event of centres closing. This may mean that even during the “downtime” of centre closures, some teachers may still have to work.

Sparkle Tots @ Fengshan
Image Source: PAP Community Foundation

In response to the Fengshan Sparkletots closure, an early childhood educator, Muhammad Hadi, revealed the stresses that they face daily in a Facebook post.

He wrote: “Those in the early childhood field would understand that it is considered the norm for teachers to still come to work when we are sick. Flu? Take medicine come to work. Fever? Take medicine come to work. Diarrhea? Take medicine come to work.
“We go to work not because we are not socially responsible but it’s because we do not want to be labelled as a burden by the eyes of many….If we were to take on medical leave, there are definitely a lot of things for us to consider. Who is going to take care of the children? Who is covering our class? How are the lessons going to be conducted?”

One commenter wrote in response, “I was asked to continue with the classes even though I said that I felt a little unwell. All because they could not get a relief teacher to cover my class. So I told them, if I were to spread the virus, who is accountable?”

Another netizen wrote, “Indeed teachers do not just serve the children, but parents as well. And ‘serve’ is not even the right word to use. I have witnessed caregivers pressuring and reprimanding teachers for not allowing sick child entry to school. It is not uncommon. It is also not uncommon to hear stinging remarks from parents when teachers take medical leave on ‘minor’ ailments.”

With early childhood educators facing so many challenges to overcome, how about we show some empathy towards them?

After schools reopen, teachers would still have to deal with an increased number of health checks in a day and ensuring that toys and classrooms are cleaned every day.

In a small room for 8 to 12 hours with 18 other warm bodies, just a sneeze or a cough can affect everyone in it if care is not taken to cover mouths or wash hands properly.

That is a risk that early childhood educators take daily – even before Covid-19.

Teachers themselves have families to go home too. If as parents, you send your sick children to school, you’re also affecting other lives and other families.

Information about Covid-19 in children is somewhat limited, but current data suggest children with Covid-19 may only have mild symptoms. However, they can still pass this virus onto others who may be at higher risk, including older adults and people who have serious underlying medical conditions.

Early childhood educators are the unsung heroes and possibly the first line of defence when it comes to protecting your young child and family members from other irresponsible parents.

If you feel that it is troublesome to have to repeatedly fill up travel declaration forms, think about how it is to be a preschool teacher who has to perform health checks on students every morning without a mask on.

Without the dedication of this group of people, we would be constantly be worrying about our children, especially during this uncertain time.

So instead of being difficult parents, let’s show our support and appreciation to early childhood educators who are also on the frontlines keeping the community safe.

Hopefully after this crisis, we can all understand the rationale when teachers turn away our child because he or she is even remotely feverish. They are only protecting the well-being of so many other children and families in their charge.

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