Society

The challenge of childcare during the pandemic

File Photo: M. PRABHU  

Sameer Sharma and his wife Anjali, who stay on the IIT-Madras campus, have rejigged their work schedules so that their work hours do not overlap.

By doing so, they ensure at least one of them is around their four-and-a-half-year-old son at any given time. A scientist, Anjali has opted for the night shift. Sameer works during the day, sometimes from home, and at other times, out of office.

“Ideally, I need to go to the office, but it is flexible. So, whenever I have to, I go to office,” says Sameer, who works for a United States-based start-up.

With many companies asking employees to return to work after vaccination, parents who lack the support system to take care of their little children are in a fix. The State Government is yet to grant permission to daycare centres/ crèches to reopen. Those running daycare centres reveal that they are receiving calls from parents requesting that they open at least for some hours every day.

Members of Chennai Individual Playschool Owners Welfare Association have been making a representation to the State government to allow them to open their establishments.

In a representation to the Chief Minister, they have requested that this being a service industry with a large number of women entrepreneurs and women caretakers they must be allowed to open existing centres.

In another representation to the Education Department, they have underlined the challenges in following the regulations that have been framed for playschools.

“Please simplify the government order for playschools according to modern social development; and do not compare us with private schools as our services are childcare-specific.”

Sujata Vijay, vice-president, Chennai Individual Playschool Owners Welfare Association, points out that 50 rules had been listed by the department. Twenty of them are unachievable.

“For example, one rule said that if you were running a daycare centre, there should be no gas cylinder within a radius of one kilometre. There were some regulations that could not be followed and so we asked the department to have them tweaked in such a manner that they benefited working parents and us,” says Sujata, who runs Bamboola.

She points out that the Association had around 700 members before the pandemic, but many had to shut down now.

“Now we are 100 active members,” says Sujata.

Many of the players operated daycare centres from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. which was a big boon for working parents. Even parents of children in kindergarten availed these services that came with a host of activities to keep the little ones engaged.

Sujata says some are getting calls from companies to open an onsite daycare facility.

“A few organisations working in the textile industry approached us but without a government permission, we cannot go ahead with it,” she says.

Ambattur Industrial Estate Manufacturers Association runs a crèche with a doctor on board and it can accommodate nearly 40 children, but the place is yet to open.

A member of the Association says that in the pre-covid days more than 20 children were availing the facility. A majority of the employees hired at the Estate have returned to work, and some of them have found a caretaker to take care of their children when they report to work. But how many of them can afford such a service?

Last year, some of the premium daycare centres started ‘at-home services’ where a caretaker was sent in-person to enable working professionals balance professional commitments and child care.

Two minds

Even if the government were to give permission, some players running daycare centres and playschools say they are wary about opening their centres now. A spokesperson of a national chain that has 40 centres in Chennai says that unless parents, children and the staff are vaccinated they do not have the confidence to reopen.

It is difficult to get very small children to follow the precautionary measures — wearing a mask, maintaining social distance and following hygiene practices.

Besides promoting hygiene practices, the recommendations from experts include restrictions on the intake of children, routine health screenings and flexible sick leave for the staff.

K. Shanmugavelayutham, convenor of Tamil Nadu Forum for Creche and Childcare Services, says institutions may think of reopening gradually but starting from the higher classes. Toddlers cannot follow COVID-appropriate protocols and they must be the last, he says.

Offices must offer flexibility to professionals who do not have any support system at home to take care of their children, says Shanmugavelayutham.


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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 7:37:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-challenge-of-childcare-during-the-pandemic/article35669931.ece

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