Continuing Foundational Learning despite COVID-19
Dorcas is one of the thousands of preschoolers at Mahama Refugee camp in Eastern Rwanda, who returned to ECD centres when they were safely reopened.
Mahama Refugee Camp, Eastern Rwanda - “I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” says a beaming Dorcas Manishimwe, responding to her teacher. “I want to care for children just like you.”
Dorcas is a pre-primary learner at an Early Childhood Development (ECD) centre at the Mahama Refugee Camp in Eastern Rwanda.
For the six-year-old, who stands out in her sparkling clean school uniform – a green skirt and yellow shirt – the ECD caregivers are role models and dream shapers. “They’re nice people.”
Dorcas is one of the thousands of preschool learners at the camp who returned to ECD centres when these safely reopened in an effort backed by UNICEF and partners.
When the first positive case of COVID-19 was reported in Rwanda back in March 2020, the government moved quickly to close schools as part of the preventive measures against the pandemic. School closures lasted for 10 months before gradual reopening was allowed.
Prior to the pandemic, UNICEF had supported the construction of three ECD centres in Mahama, which served up to 6,600 children aged 3-6. UNICEF had also trained caregivers who provided integrated ECD services, including early learning and stimulation, and sensitized communities and children alike on key issues around children’s protection, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation.
When these ECD centres were suspended due to the pandemic, not only did it affect children but their parents and guardians as well, as most of them did not have a safe place to leave their children when they went out to work.
In February 2021, when the government allowed for gradual reopening of schools, UNICEF swung into action and supported the government with ensuring that ECD centres in refugee camps around the country, including at Mahama, reopen and operate safely. That meant rolling out comprehensive COVID-19 prevention and response mechanisms. With generous support of USA UNICEF Fund / Next Generation, these included training of 100 ECD caregivers and 220 home-based ECD community volunteers at Mahama alone on safe operations of ECD centres. It also included engaging with parents and teachers on issues of COVID-19 prevention and control, positive parenting practices with a focus on inclusion, and mental health.
They also provided Personal Protective Equipment and COVID-19 prevention supplies to ECD centres, such as infrared thermometers, reusable facemasks, sanitizers, and handwashing soap. UNICEF and its partners also equipped the centres with education kits to enhance play-based learning and stimulation for children.
At the ECD centre in Mahama, the enthusiastic Dorcas can barely sit on her chair for five minutes quietly, as she keeps putting her hand up to answer a question.
At one point she’s asked to come to the front of the class, which she proudly does, exuding confidence, her soft little steps, in a pair of yellow shoes, barely audible. She flashes a cute smile as she attempts to answer a question, all eyes in the modest room of her class curiously fixed upon her.
Vincent Nzisabira, the teacher, reveals that Dorcas is the class representative. “She is very active and loves to help,” he says, admiringly.
As with most of the refugees here, Dorcas is of Burundian origin. She is the last born in a family of four.
At the end of her school-day, she learns that we will be escorting her home. On the way, a visibly excited Dorcas is literally running, so much so that we have to ask her to slow down lest she ‘disappears’ in the backyard of one of the houses that line the pathway leading to her home.
As we meander around the settlement, we meet parents and caregivers holding little children and heading to the ECD centre for the afternoon class shift.
After a short walk, we are welcomed by Merchior Girimana, Dorcas’s father. He does not waste time to let us know how proud he is to see his youngest child attending school so young.
“We are very grateful for the support,” he says, alluding to UNICEF’s intervention which allowed for the safe reopening of the ECD centres. “We didn’t know that our children would return to school given the COVID-19 situation.”
"My wife and I did not complete our studies and we hope that our children go beyond where we stopped."
“They are lucky they have the opportunity to study, even at such a young age,” he says.
“With the ECD centres now open we do not have to worry about the safety of our children when we are not around,” he notes. “It allows my wife and I to concentrate on earning a living.”
‘Children have adapted’
Girimana’s sentiments are shared by many around the area, who appreciate the ECD programme. Nurturing children in their formative years, ECD centres provide crucial pre-primary cognitive training, social-emotional skills, playing and responsive care.
At the ECD centres in Mahama refugee camp, learners also make use of the wash points set up around the sites.
At the heart of the safe reopening of the ECD programme are caregivers, who play an instrumental role in enforcing COVID-19 preventative guidelines.
“It was initially challenging but the children have adapted relatively well,” says Vincent.
At Dorcas’s home, it was obvious the ECD caretakers with support from UNICEF and partners had done a good job disseminating COVID-19 messages to every household in the camp. When she arrives home, Dorcas goes straight to the backyard to wash her hands before she settles down. “We’re always washing our hands,” she says as she re-joins us in the conversation.