“Uncertainty” is the word most repeated by workers in private nursery schools – half of the sector in Spain – at the beginning of the year. Within a generally bad outlook, last year was especially hard for these centers, which saw one in six students lose to families’ fear of COVID-19, teleworking – which made it possible for some mothers and fathers to become charge of their child – or the uncertainty of the employment situation of the parents, many of them in ERTE, without guarantees of return and therefore cautious with their expenses.
Thousands of private nursery schools will not open in September due to COVID-19: “We have not endured the drop in enrollment”
This September, in this kind of new normal in which we are establishing ourselves, the situation is recovering, but still very slowly. “The unemployment data have improved a lot this summer, and that may help there are families who decide in September to take their children to the Early Childhood Education center,” explains Pedro Ocaña, head of the private education sector at CCOO, “but not I think it’s going to improve a lot compared to last year’s data. ”
The 2020-2021 course, the first that already began in a pandemic, was devastating for the sector, according to the employers. Although they do not offer specific data, the main associations of private centers in the country maintain that one in five closed last year, either temporarily or permanently. This drop in the total number of nursery schools is not reflected in the statistics, still provisional, of the Ministry of Education, which refers to a loss of 2% of the centers (from 9,115 the previous year to 8,933 the past), although the student body is: From 469,758 students enrolled in 2019-2020 last year, it went down to 390,425, 16.9% less.
The first cycle of Early Childhood Education, between 0 and 3 years old, is particular with respect to the others. As it is neither mandatory nor universalized, as the second is (3-6), the public offer does not cover all the demand. Almost half of the sector are private centers, mostly small cooperatives, more expensive than state ones. “We are talking about tiny centers and many people are throwing in the towel”, illustrates Ignacio Grimá, president of the sector of Early Childhood Education of the employer association ACADE, who warns: “We try to show the administrations that as you load the private network you are going to find a future problem “. Of the 390,425 students from the last academic year, 209,588 go to public schools (53.6%) and 180,837 to private ones (46.4%).
“We hope that people will just cheer up”
The Okapi nursery school in Madrid accurately reflects the situation of so many others. Last year it was about to close, but the generosity of the owner of the premises saved them, according to its director, Ariel Cannizzo. The year was slow. They started with 10 students, two-thirds of their capacity, and ended with 13. It is a small sample, but it lost 13.4% of its student body. This course has also started slowly. “We are with eight boys, but we hope that during this first quarter people will finish cheering up,” says Cannizzo on the other end of the phone.
This director recounts a panorama that is repeated where there are no public places for all families, which to a greater or lesser extent occurs throughout the country. “We have spoken with other schools and parents and there have been many people requesting a place in the public schools. We have had many pre-registrations that were diluted, people who were in ERTE who later became ERE and left it,” he explains.
Grimá attributes it to “a problem of mistrust” related to the pandemic, although he believes that it is getting better. “Little by little the families were trusting more, now trust has returned because they have seen that more than a source of contagion, because of the measures that are being taken, it is a control center. But the economic situation in this country is what it is. “, he concedes.
The case of Daniel and Nuria responds half to this situation, with the exception that it is not an economic problem but an insecurity problem. After being one of so many families that last year opted for prudence, he had decided to take their two-year-old daughter to nursery school. But at the last moment doubts arose. The girl has regular contact with her grandmother, Nuria can take care of her and they have finally chosen to stay home “for fear of COVID-19”. To “avoid risks”, they admit. Nuria argues that “children are always indoors, very close together, there are a lot of slime, toys sucked by several of them, if they get to close classes you have to do PCR on such young children …”.
More public squares, fewer private centers
When Grimá refers to “loading” the private network, he speaks of the Government’s commitment to increase the supply of public places in this cycle. In total, the Executive plans to create 200,000 places during the legislature, of which 60,000 would already be in operation, according to the Minister of Education, Pilar Alegría, last week. This situation has the sector – feminized and precarious, with salaries only slightly above the interprofessional minimum – concerned, from employers to unions.
“It will do a lot of damage to the private sector if it is not possible for the administrations to establish agreements or concerts with these centers, which for me would be the ideal situation”, assesses Jesús Pueyo, head of the FSIE union. “We do not understand that they want to destroy a significant amount of employment in some centers that have been providing an important service for years and now they are not counted on in this extension of 0-3 education, which on the other hand seems important and interesting to us” .
Pueyo’s reasoning is repeated with minor changes. “We propose some type of agreement or collaboration, such as help to families so that they can choose a center,” explains Grimá, from the employer’s association and which manages four centers. “We believe in efficiency in public spending. We try to show that our work is not only one of conciliation, but also the advantages in cognitive development, etc. We propose what can be done in collaboration to prevent so many women from going unemployed and so many centers close, it doesn’t make sense when you already have the private network. ”
According to professionals, the transfer is already taking place. Not so much in this case because of the creation of new places as because of the difference that some are free and the others are not. And the drop in enrollment has been widespread, opening up places in normally saturated public schools. “Families go to public or indirect management, the trend is very clear,” says Jesús Gualix, head of Private Education at FeSP-UGT.
The COVID protocols and the fact that grandparents are widely used at these ages, a population especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, have not helped families decide to take their children to the centers either. “We have had an adaptation period,” Cannizzo explains. “On the first day, only the new ones entered, those who had the hardest time, and those that we saw that they cost even more have entered the first three days. We have taken turns and weathered that part a bit. But as of this week no no one else enters the school, only the teachers and the children enter “.
And this is a problem for children in their adaptation to a new environment and without the family, but also for schools, which for example cannot (in theory) allow mothers or fathers to enter. “Normally, families enter the classroom, place their material, their child, etc.”, illustrates Diana Pérez, president of the Association of Indirect Management Infant Schools of Madrid (AEIGI) and director of the Patas Arriba center in Rivas. “But now a teacher does it, who has to receive, place the children, the material, attend to those who are in adaptation …”.
In addition, last year they had reinforcement personnel, but this one no longer, which calls into question the maintenance of the bubble groups that there should be. In Pérez’s school last year there was enough reinforcement to have two adults per classroom, he says. This have not arrived. “In the extended hours I cannot keep the bubble group as such,” says the director. “I have to create new groups because I cannot have a single student in the classroom to maintain their bubble, the staff has the schedule they have.” So it is bound to mix different groups. “They leave you to look for life, but it is so vocational that you end up doing it to make it work,” he closes.