Quality in caregiving.

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Learning together from the crisis:

Strengthen children's rights and initiate a return to normality

The first year of the “Corona crisis” has been a year of uncertainty. We witnessed a crisis in which we had to learn to make decisions based on insufficient information. A year in which we were forced to take position without always knowing exactly all the details needed to be known for that. And a year in which out of fear of making wrong decisions we sometimes gave in to the desire for the one and simple truth. We as rainbowtrekkers have been a microcosmos of reality in society as a whole.

One year ago this month, Prime Minister Armin Laschet appeared before the press in Düsseldorf and announced an entry ban for all kindergartens in North Rhine-Westphalia. As a protective measure against the spread of the coronavirus, all daycare centers throughout the state were declared off-limits zones by decree.
The rest is history. Initially, kindergartens were open only to few children whose parents worked in professions which at that time were called “system-relevant”. However, this intrusion into the educational rights and freedoms of an entire kindergarten generation remained in place even after the actual (or feared) danger had passed by the end of the the first Corona wave in April 2020. Instead of successively offering garegiving options to children and families from all backgrounds, an attempt was made to centrally regulate the utilization rate of daycare centers in the state by softening the concept of “system relevance.”

Fortunately, the state government has since abandoned this approach. At that time, however, this practice had caused plenty of bad blood in the field. The state government had passed the buck to the daycare providers to decide which child was allowed to come and which was not. A thankless job in which we, as daycare providers, also made mistakes for which we would like on this occasion to apologize once again.

Today, one year later, we are observing the whole range of different social positions on dealing with the Corona virus, both among our parents and our staff. We want all these different points of view to be given their space and to be heard. In our centers, we want to listen to each other and allow opposing opinions, views and fears. Ideally, the focus should always be on the children’s interests.

Things did not turn out as badly as initially feared

In retrospect, we can say: The predicted horror scenarios did not materialize. Things did not turn out as badly as they had initially been told to us. However, in the meantime the collateral damage of lockdown and “pandemic management” on children has been immense – from a psychological, educational and social point of view. Isn’t it time now to take a closer look and to take countermeasures where necessary? Shouldn’t we finally start to put into place a corona exit strategy for the daycare sector? We – staff and parents – need to engage in a joint discussion about how we can support our children in growing up again free of fear.

In the context of “pandemic management” the perspective of children of kindergarten age has so far been largely ignored. This is a development that worries us, given the now considerable duration of the Corona measures in relation to the “overall age” of the kindergarten children. It also contradicts the basic pedagogical mandate given to us daycare providers, according to which we want to support children in growing into autonomous personalities who actively participate (give and take) in social life.

In the worst case, lockdown, social distancing, mandatory masks and group segregation in kindergartens can lead to the exact opposite: The raise of a generation of children who basically function; little subjects of us adults – instead of free citizens of the world.

In our previous newsletter we have already reported in detail on the psychological mechanisms (fear, repression of needs, etc.) that can promote such a negative development. Today, I would like to illustrate this fear with a few observations from everyday kindergarten life.

Since the state government for reasons of desease management wants to see a strict group separation implemented in day care facilities, many kindergartens have decided that breakfast and lunch will no longer be taken across groups in the kindergarten restaurant, but rather in the class room of each group. This is to reduce the number of contacts, if any, in communal areas.

The fact that the additional chairs and tables in the group rooms permanently restrict the space for the children’s free play and movement I will only mention here in passing. In one kindergarten in town, I recently observed how caregivers walked around the lunch table like waiters and placed main and side dishes directly on each child’s plate, either sideways or over the kid’s shoulders from behind. I was puzzled by this oberservation, because communal meals in kindergarten settings have always been considered a prime example of how children can learn independence; for example, that a table does not set itself; that we have to share the food on the table among all those present; that we only put as much food onto the plate as we want to eat; that cleaning up and wiping down after the meal is a straining but useful effort; etc.

How much longer are we willing to sacrifice our educational standards to the corona regime?

My first impression of the situation described was therefore that we have gotten into a serious problem here to further live up to the values to which we as adults working in the daycare sector had always committed ourselves to  – such as supporting autonomous child development. The adults on site justified the new work routines desribed above with the “recommendations for action of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia”, according to which buffets are no longer permitted in kindergartens for reasons of infection.

I seriously ask myself and others: How long do we want to subordinate our pedagogical aims, our image of the autonomous child, our work as educators and human beings to the needs of a corona health regime? The children in the scene described above were between two and four years old. For almost a year now, they have been taking their meals at the kindergarten in the manner described. I am afraid that for a year now these children have also hardly been sharing any communal meals at home with other children or relatives who are not part of their nuclear family. And there is no end in sight.

Stop restricting the freedom of our children

What are we doing to our children and what vital experiences are we withholding from them? These children described in my example have already spent a significant portion of their lives in “social distancing” and countless social learning opportunities have been withheld from them as a result. Despite Corona, how can we ensure that these children will still develop a desire for human connection after all once they enter school?

Another worrysome example are the current drop-off and pick-up situations in many kindergartens in the mornings and afternoons. Because of the state-imposed group separation, daycare providers in many cases had to reduce opening hours. However, because most parents have to work thoughout the day, this means that different from the past many children are only picked up from kindergarten a few minutes before closing time. Parents queue up in front of the kindergarten. Inside, at the same time, the children are lined up – already dressed by the employees and ready to be picked up. The handover to the parents at the doorstep is sometimes a matter of just a few seconds.

How can mutual trust between parents and educators continue to grow and flourish in such a situation? How can educational partnership succeed if there is no opportunity for personal exchange? Phone calls and video conferences are no substitute for regular human contact. For parents, kindergartens have turned into a “black box” that requires a considerable amount of trust in advance.
This is a particular problem with very young children, because they are not yet able to tell their parents themselves about what they saw, felt and experienced during the day at kindergarten.

What about our social contacts?

What about the opening-up of daycare facilities to families and towards the neighbourhood which educational policy makers had been advocating for throughout the past few decades? After all, we want and need parents as educational partners and other trustful adults to be physically present in our kindergartens on a daily basis.

Where have our basic convictions gone as to how a child should grow up today? How can we continue to live our liberal values despite the fear surrounding us? How can we give space to our need for security without losing sight of what is meaningful for us and our children?

Group separation similar to elephant in the room

A proper group separation under aspects of infection prevention as currently practiced in many German kindergartens remains pure fiction. It is absolutely unrealistic. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that there are siblings who attend different groups. And for another, it is in the dynamics of work processes in kindergartens that there are regular and repeated inter-group contacts among adults. This cannot be ruled out for either work time of the staff or for their free time. And it should not.

Under normal circumstances, children would benefit from a cross-group age mix. For this reason, all of our centers are run according to the so-called “partially open concept”. This is based on the basic pedagogical assumption that age homogeneity is useful for the cognitive development of the children, whereas the social development of the children is promoted precisely by age mixing. For more than a year now we have not lived up to this very basic pedagogical standard. For how long do we just want to keep on doing this?

Where is the evidence?

I ask our politicians and educational policy makers, our staff, and myself: does it make sense to continue to adhere to group separation, even though the evidence that group separation in kindergarten save lives in nursing homes or elsewhere is still lacking?
According to my observations, many adults prefer to stick to group separation. A positive PCR test result of one child or teacher might otherwise immediately lead to closing the entire kindergarten, meaning a total lack of childcare for all parents for the duration of quarantine.

Under these conditions, reducing the risk to a single kindergarten group – with all the negative pedagogical effects for the children mentioned above – appears to be the lesser evil from a parent’s side – even though children for a year now how been restricted in their choice of playmates. Is this how we want to make our decisions? If so, then we should also point out that these decisions are based exclusively on political or economic assumptions and not on pedagogical ones.

This brings us to the role of parents in the pandemic. There is no doubt that families have been pushed to their absolute breaking point by the government over the past twelve months, and often even beyond. Caught in the hamster wheel between “home office”, “home schooling” and reduced kindergarten hours, families at this point in time deserve our unconditional and undivided sympathy and support.

Fears multiply each other

We observe that the current situation presents parents with a major personal dilemma. On the one hand, the caregiving services provided by the kindergarten are urgently needed in order to maintain a halfway normal family routine.
This is especially true when there are several children living at home.

On the other hand, the media coverage of Corona has deeply unsettled and frightened parents themselves.

This fear is then carried into our kindergartens, where it encounters employees who have a special need for protection simply because of the multitude of their daily professional encounters. As an employer, we have always taken up this need for protection and also addressed it internally. All in all, however, the fears of parents and employees multiply.

Where have all the children's rights activists gone?

In the pedagogic professional public, for many years we have lead an intensive discussion over child rights. Lockdowns, daycare closures, group segregation and fear pedagogy have been curtailing children’s rights in Germany and around the world in the most elementary way throughout the past twelve months. And we adults have remained silent so far. Where did all the political advocates of children’s rights disappear?

Need for reflection and contemplation

Can we be sure that we are not traumatizing our children by our actions? How can we ensure that “after Corona” we can still find our way back into a constructive, trusting relationship? How can we as adults learn to talk to each other in spite of our fears in such a way that we come together instead of dividing us apart?

As adults, we want to show our children how to treat each other with respect, even in threatening situations. And as educational professionals, we have learned to critically reflect on our own actions, fears and attitudes. It is our desire to extend this attitude to all those involved in the kindergarten setting.

COVID19 is a challenging disease that needs to be taken seriously. Especially for elderly people, it can sometimes be fatal. Long-term consequences can also persist, such as chronic fatigue.

As a daycare provider, we therefore remain committed to our preventive hygiene programs: Surface disinfection, hand washing, regular airing of rooms, not taking in sick children. We do this out of caution and out of respect for our employees, parents and children, many of whom have family members who may be at risk.

But we can no longer consider Corona to be the overwhelming danger that politicians and scientists had warned us about a year ago that it would cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. People are not dying in the streets, we don’t have the plague in the country, and not Ebola. Therefore, we ask: Against this backdrop, is it still justified to further restrict our children in their opportunities to grow and develop?

Preventing discrimination

Corona in no way justifies suspending our core educational beliefs and social ideals such as inclusion and diversity.
A look at the website of the German NGO “Aktion Mensch” shows how much our values and basic human rights have already been threatened by the Corona restrictions. “Aktion Mensch” seriously suggests that all disabled people who cannot wear a mask for health reasons should protect themselves from stigmatization in public by wearing a yellow armband. How far have we come?

The coronavirus will remain for many years – just like HIV or influenza. We need politicians to state this clearly and, for the sake of our children, help to free the daycare sector from its state of shock. The 2020 excess mortality in Germany is only slightly above linear regression and is comparable to that of the 2017/18 flu epidemic. Few ICUs in Germany reached their breaking point, and at no point in the winter behind us did our hospitals fail to cope with the seasonal stress. There is still controversy among scientists as to whether the new mutations are more contagious. However, according to the majority opinion of physicians, more severe consequences of the disease are not the rule – even in children.

Due to administrative regulations, we have of course taken (and will continue to take) hygiene measures in our kindergartens that go beyond surface disinfection, ventilation, hand washing, etc. However, we have to be aware of the fact that in the long term the children’s mental health is at risk. Especially in the case of group separation and the duty to wear masks in our outdoor playgrounds, we need to remember that these measures are not evidence-based under aspects of infection prevention but are purely political. Every time we – staff, parents and children – look at the face of our counterparts, we are constantly reminded that there is supposedly a deadly danger out there. Thus, we mutually reinforce the perceived threat level. We need this to stop.

Exit strategy now!

There are many ways to end the lockdown and the wave of fear that has been affecting our children for the past year. Critical alignment between what we hear in the media and the reality we see with our own eyes seems to be one of them. Another is the approval of drugs to treat those who suffer from Covid19. Countries like India and Brazil have done world-changing things in this regard and are way ahead of us. Vaccinations could possibly be another way, provided they are safe and not accompanied by social pressure or a reward-and-punishment-style of governance.

In the democratic countries of the West (whose freedom we want to bequeath to our children), the social impact of the pandemic will only end when the majority of us citizens decide that we no longer want to be afraid. The prerequisite for this is that we will be adult enough to deal respectfully with the fears of our fellow human beings, while at the same time facing up to and critically reflecting on our own fears.

Tansgenerational trauma pre-programmed

Being cautious, taking responsibility, and being considerate of risk groups is important. We should model appropriate behavior to our children. But we should be careful not to give our children the feeling, out of our own helplessness, that they are responsible for keeping grandma or grandpa alive. The existence of adults is essential for children to survive. That is why children feel responsible for adults. Educators and social workers learn this in their first year of training. When we give children the impression that their everyday way of life determines the life and death of beloved family members, we confront them with an ethical dilemma that is not solvable for them. Trans-generational trauma will be pre-programmed. We should choose our narratives extremely carefully.

Instead, let’s be more loving with ourselves and with those around us. Let’s start by being role models for our children.

Let’s model for them how we resolve disagreements constructively. Let’s show them that we are able to listen, to really listen with the desire to understand. Let’s show them that it’s okay to have their own (sometimes differing) opinion and that they belong in spite of it, or precisely because of it. Let’s create a culture of togetherness, and in doing so, set an example of how something good can grow out of what has been perceived so far as an outsized threat.

Joel Mertens
Founder and CEO
rainbowtrekekrs Kita gGmbH

Joel Mertens

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