Hemanth Sagar, 33, founder of a chain of 25 preschools in Bengaluru, has watched his schools shut down one by one in the last six months. “Only six of them are up now. If things don’t improve, I will have no option but to exit completely after December,” said Sagar, who worked with Hindustan Lever before starting his first Young World International Preschool in 2012. He has already started looking for a job.
In the National Capital Region, Arvind Bhasin, who runs the Vidyanjali chain of preschools, started a chain of grocery stores during the lockdown. All his 14 preschools, seven of them directly owned by Bhasin and the rest run under a franchise model, are currently shut.
With not enough quality day-care services for toddlers and children below three in urban areas, the preschool model had filled the vacuum for families with working parents. But now, with a pandemic raging and most parents working from home or faced with job losses, preschools across the country are staring at an uncertain future.
The distress is evident on social media sites and online marketplace platforms that are flooded with posts on owners looking to either sell their preschool merchandise or offering playschool takeovers for a price.
According to Prasanna Kumar, CEO of the Bengaluru-based School Ventures, an education consultancy firm that connects buyers and sellers of schools, about 700 playschools are currently up for takeover or sale in Bengaluru alone. There were 64 sale listings in March, he said.
So what does the shutting of playschools — part of an unregulated sector with widely varying standards — mean for children and working parents?
“There are two separate issues when it comes to private providers of early childhood education. Poor quality early childhood programmes can be detrimental to children. So if the centres closing are ones that are bad, then it’s good,” said Vrinda Datta, Director of the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development at Ambedkar University in Delhi.
“Having said that, a neighbourhood daycare or preschool is beneficial to children. There are wonderful examples of very well-run individual centres in Mumbai and Delhi. So there are centres and programmes that we cannot afford to lose,” she added.
Swati Popat Vats, the Mumbai-based president of the Early Childhood Association, a group of preschool and daycare owners and experts, said the impact of closures in the preschool sector will be felt disproportionately by women. “What happens to mothers who will have to return to the workplace one day? How will they join the workforce again when their nearest daycare centre or preschool will no longer be open?” she said.
Besides, this is a sector run predominantly by women. “Over 80% of preschools in the country are owned and run by women entrepreneurs. The employees, caregivers, teachers and helpers in a preschool are all usually women,” Vats added.
The small playschool chains — already operating on razor-thin margins, and with no new admissions this year — have been among the first to fold up. They are haemorrhaging cash as they are still paying rent with no new admissions and, hence, no money coming in.
Bharat Kapoor, co-founder and managing director of Your Kids R Our Kids, a chain of 36 daycare and education centres across the country, said, “Playschools in India mainly function out of rented premises.
With landlords refusing to renegotiate rent, there is a big problem of rental debt for preschool owners. Even when the government allows preschools to reopen, where will they find the money to clear this debt? Which is why many think it’s best to pack up and leave.”
WhatsApp groups of preschool owners, Kapoor added, have been buzzing with alerts about closures, sale listings and takeover offers. “Twenty-two preschool owners have approached me in the last two weeks alone, asking if I can take over their centres,” he said.
While K-12 schools have adapted to online teaching and learning, this strategy has failed for preschools. “We cater to really young kids, and it’s not easy to get them to pay attention in a virtual class. After the lockdown was announced, we started online classes, but when we asked parents for fees, they pulled the kids out,” said Bhasin of the Vidyanjali preschool chain in the NCR.
“All our preschool centres run out of rented premises, and each property costs over Rs 2 lakh a month. The franchise owners and I had a joint meeting with the landlords. We all handed over the keys to our centres and reached an understanding that if a landlord finds a tenant during the shutdown, then he can go ahead with the fresh lease. But if he doesn’t, they will allow the centre to continue once the government allows preschools to reopen,” said Bhasin. “But honestly, 70% of my preschools will not survive this.”
Bela Kotwani, CEO and principal of CosmiKids International Preschool and Daycare in Mumbai, isn’t very optimistic either. “I don’t think the situation will improve for us till June-July next year. Even if the government allows us to reopen, I doubt parents will want to send young children,” she said. One of her two preschools shut down a week ago.
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