When the government announced that childcare centres could reopen from June 2, working mother Jamie Tan was relieved.
For the past two weeks, Tan, who works in marketing in Kuala Lumpur, has been sending her two children – Travis Entaban, seven, and Jada Entaban, five – to their childcare centre in Mutiara Damansara, Petaling Jaya.
“My husband and I were initially worried about the safety of our children. The first thing we did was discuss with the childcare centre and observe their practices and standard operating procedures (SOP). The strict SOP by the childcare centre gave us peace of mind, ” says Tan.
During the conditional movement control order (CMCO), the government announced that the 7,000 registered childcare centres in the country were allowed to restart their operations from June 2. Prior to that, only 304 centres could do so.
The SOP given by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry states that, among other measures, children need to be dropped off within a span of five to 10 minutes, with not more than five children at a time.
Like many mothers, Tan, 36, constantly reminds her children to wear a face mask, wash their hands and practise social distancing.
“My husband and I also agreed that our children should learn social distancing and put this into practice. Placing Travis at the daycare is a good stepping stone to help him fit into the new normal, especially when he goes back to primary school, ” says Tan.
During the CMCO, Tan and her husband, Tomi Entaban, had been working from home while looking after their nine-month-old baby, Elliot.
But Tan is unsure about her working arrangements after the CMCO. If Tomi and Tan are required to work from their respective offices, Elliot will join his siblings at the centre.
“The back to work arrangement may vary between companies post-CMCO. It can be 100% work from home, or the team could be split into two groups. Different teams will alternate their work hours in the office to minimise contact.
“There is the other option for us – one parent works from home to take care of Elliot, while the other works from the office.”
Tan also has the option to send her infant to her parents, who live in Klang. But she feels it is a Catch-22 situation.
“Outsourcing to a third party (grandparents or other family members) has the same risk as sending to a well-managed taska. We can’t control the hygiene practices of family members. Problems could arise if a family member goes to the kopitiam or market, catches the virus and spreads it to others.”
Safety comes first
To reduce the risk of exposure to Covid-19, Jacquita Gonzales, principal of Petaling Jaya-based kindergarten-cum-daycare centre Oranges and Lemons, has been following the government’s SOP as well as added precautionary steps.
“One week before the opening, we cleaned the centre from top to bottom, and sterilised and sanitised all toys. We also fogged the centre with a sanitising solution that’s safe for children, ” Gonzales, 58, says.
It is a lot of hard work, but Gonzales is willing to go the extra mile to keep the children safe, well aware of the greater responsibility that her preschool must shoulder during the pandemic.
“We also have to train the staff on the new norm and get the health declaration form for our staff.
“We have always practised handwashing and regularly sterilise the equipment, toys and furniture in the centre. But now, it is done triple times or more.”
To ensure children stick to the social distancing practice, Gonzales has used masking tape to mark square boxes on the floor. Each box is set one metre apart.
In each classroom, tables are arranged in a rectangular manner. Only two children are allowed at each table, and they are required to sit a metre apart. There are only six students in each class.
Mealtimes are staggered and children must have their meals in their respective classrooms.
Group activities and group play are a thing of the past. Now, each child is given their own set of toys and they have to play at a safe distance from each other.
“It is a pity they can’t play with each other. But these are among the many precautionary measures to keep children safe, ” says Gonzales, who has opted to use only tissue paper instead of hand towels at her taska.
Despite these efforts, some parents are still apprehensive about sending their children back to childcare centres. Financial planner Sky Siew, 34, will only send his daughter Wyuna, four, back to preschool if there is a further drop in the number of Covid-19 cases in Malaysia.
“Wyuna’s pre-school will open next month, but I’m unsure when I’ll be sending her back. It depends on the number of cases and if my neighbourhood falls under the green, yellow or red zone, ” says the father-of-two.
His wife Teresa Toh, 32, is a homemaker and looks after their six-month-old baby, Wayna. Siew admits Toh is having a tough time caring for their two children at home.
“My wife is exhausted. Both children need attention and she is finding it hard to cope with chores and managing two children. Once the situation improves, I will send Wyuna to preschool where she can learn to read and write.”
Aqilah Che Azizuddin, director of Kitakids Preschool in Kuala Lumpur, says pre-school centres have a big responsibility to ensure children are in the best environment, both in terms of education as well as health and safety.
“It is crucial to have an open mindset in the current situation. We are in a new, unprecedented situation and changes are inevitable. We have to embrace it to ensure our children get the best care.
“Whatever works now may not work next week or next month. We always have to be more creative and be prepared and ready for any change that might take place, ” says Aqilah, who opened her pre-school on May 19.
The government’s SOP, which stresses on social distancing, means that the number of children allowed on the premises would be halved. Priority is for children of frontliners and kids whose parents are both working.
Aqilah is following the procedures strictly and only has about eight students at her centre in Bangsar.
“The kids’ parents do not have the flexibility of working from home, so these are the children that we prioritise.”
Gonzales, on the other hand, is thankful that her centre is large and can cater to many students during the pandemic.
“We only have very few children coming in now as some parents are still working from home, so we give them lessons online.”
But Gonzales says parents must be socially responsible about any signs of illness that they or their children are experiencing.
“Before Covid-19, some parents would not divulge any contagious diseases (like chicken pox, hand, foot and mouth) or lice problems that the kids or their siblings have. Parents need to be honest and work together with us.”
Association of Registered Childcare Providers Malaysia president Anisa Ahmad agrees, saying children should not be sent to childcare centres when they are down with fever or flu, a cough or any diseases.
“So far, the SOP is in line with what childcare providers have been doing. However, this time we are doing it on an even stricter mode. Now, the baton is given to parents to follow the SOP. We have done our part as much as possible, ” says Anisa, who also hopes the government will help fill the gap in the shortage of taskas in the country.
Anisa is well aware of the concerns of parents who can’t send their children to taskas due to the government’s social distancing policy.
“The government and private organisations need to come up with a system where working parents can have flexible work hours. Another option for working parents is to ask relatives to look after their children.
"Ensure the carer is someone trusted. It can be dangerous to leave children in the hands of a stranger, ” says Anisa, who encourages the government to create a Department for Children’s Development and Education.