Eight months have passed since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 pandemic. Since almost then, a large part of the childcare centers and preschools in Latin America and the Caribbean have been closed. According to the global tool developed by UNESCO to monitor the closure of educational centers due to the pandemic, only two countries of the region have schools fully open with a cut-off to the last week of October.
In principle, the decision to close educational centers was taken as a containment measure to promote physical distancing and reduce the community spread of the virus. Hence, scientific evidence during a flu pandemic suggests that school closings can reduce the peak of the infection rate by up to 40%; the impact of this measure on overall infection rates may be slight compared to isolating cases or home quarantine. This scenario presents three reasons why a safe reopening of in-person instruction of childcare and preschool services should be a priority.
Firstly, for early childhood development
The first five years of life in girls and boys are key milestones for social-emotional and cognitive development. This is a critical period to create the set of neural connections necessary to achieve a physically and mentally healthy life since the brain is much more sensitive and flexible to learning experiences and stimulation of the environment. This early plasticity means that what is done or not done during early childhood can have a long-term influence on the formation of human capital, people’s health, and behavior.
Second, because childcare and preschools centers are more than a learning space
An IDB study estimates that the losses associated with six months without early childhood services in the short, medium, and long term are unprecedented. In a region as deeply unequal as Latin America and the Caribbean, where the 1% richest accumulates 21% of the income of the entire economy, childcare and preschool centers become a protective space and provider of opportunities, not just for girls and boys, but for their families, caregivers, and the community.
Childcare and preschool centers are allied spaces to deploy, consolidate, and strengthen safety nets. This is especially important for families in adverse socioeconomic contexts such as the displaced or migrant population, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, and children with disabilities who require inclusive education or specialized services. Past experiences related to the Ebola crisis in West Africa have found devastating effects on learning and school retention, health and nutrition, or sexual violence. Prolonged closings could also have adverse consequences such as stress, anxiety, and uncertainty for parents, caregivers, and teachers.
Third, due to an increase in the gender gap in the labor market
Childcare centers provide necessary services for working families, which favors the recovery of the economy. However, unlike other crises that have impacted men more than women, measures such as social distancing have a particularly high impact for single and working mothers, given their higher labor participation in service sectors such as restaurants, hotels, health, and education. Besides, the closure of early childhood services has increased the unpaid workload in households. Given the unequal distribution of household chores between men and women, this has also affected women’s labor participation.
Thinking about why safe reopening is essential
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated a problematic and unpredictable scenario. Governments and educational agents of the region have made great efforts to develop initiatives that allow the continuation of distance care services. However, gaps in access to digital resources and connectivity and the limitations of learning at home — more pronounced in more vulnerable households — make these efforts insufficient and even lead to increases in social and gender inequalities. For this reason, it is essential to continue joining efforts to develop strategies that allow the safe reopening of child care and preschool centers even in an imperfect scenario and without vaccines for the coronavirus. Prolonged closure is a costly alternative in both the short and long term for all; millions of girls and boys in Latin America and the Caribbean are a priority that we cannot ignore.