From next April, South Africa’s early childhood development (ECD) sector will no longer be run by the department of social development, but by that of basic education. 

On Wednesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the long-awaited proclamation of the transfer of administration, powers and functions of the early childhood development sector to the education portfolio. The transfer is set to happen on 1 April 2022.

However, this does not mean all early childhood development teachers will be part of the Covid-19 vaccination drive for educators just yet — most of them have still been left out of the plan for now. Only those who teach grades R to three will be vaccinated at this time; early childhood development teachers who work with younger children (birth to four years) are not part of the roll-out.

Many of the teachers are frustrated with this decision, because they come into contact with children daily, putting them at risk. Vaccinations for teachers and school support staff began on 23 June, with the department of health projecting that about one-million vaccines would be made available.

The decision not to vaccinate all early childhood development teachers makes no sense, in the opinion of Professor Eric Atmore from the Centre for Early Childhood Development.

“Around the country, every day, about 180 000 ECD teachers work with about 2.5-million children; and they are in direct contact each and every day,” he said. 

The move to the department of basic education would, however, allow early childhood development to be taken far more seriously than it had been to date, he added.

“Since [the Covid-19] lockdown started, and pre-lockdown, the department of social development has been missing in action. The department is uncaring, and has neglected our children, to their detriment,” said Atmore.

The ECD’s migration to basic education was announced in Ramaphosa’s 2019 State of the Nation address, the main reason being to improve the development of children and the quality of early childhood education. The two departments have been working together to create relevant governance structures to ensure a smooth transition. Both have said there will be no interruptions in service delivery during the transition.

To allow the transfer, provisions from chapters five and six of the Children’s Act of 2005, as they relate to early childhood development, have been identified.

According to a joint statement in March by the departments of basic education and social development, a proclamation to transfer the powers and functions of early childhood development to the minister of basic education, and one to transfer powers and functions to the relevant MECs of each province, have been made based on the recommendation of the Office of the Chief State Law Adviser.

Mmatsetshuweu Ruby Motaung, the director of training and resources in early education for the National Early Childhood Alliance, told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday that those members of the early childhood development workforce who fall under basic education, have been included in the vaccine roll-out plan, whereas the early childhood development teachers who are still under the social development department have not. 

As a result, only 40 000 of the 180 000 early childhood development teachers will be vaccinated. 

“As if that’s not enough, the very same group that is provided for in the roll-out [work at institutions that have] been declared to close during level four [of the Covid-19 lockdown]. The education staff who received the vaccine are to get a two-week holiday. The ones that never qualified for the vaccine are going to continue working,” Motaung said.

“This implies a circle of vulnerability, as the teachers and children are the most vulnerable, and there is a dire need to keep centres open.”

Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu is set to brief the media on Friday on the department’s response to the Covid-19 and the level four risk-adjusted strategy recently announced by Ramaphosa. She will also outline compliance measures and provide an update on early childhood development, old age homes, and community nutrition and development centres.