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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Daycare demystified: State schools win out

My two-year-old son awoke one morning last week in the bloom of health: only one eye gummed shut with conjunctivitis, his obstinate 40C fever down to a smouldering 38C, his chronic bronchitis slowed to a phlegmy pulse, and his diarrhea beginning to show signs he had eaten in the last fortnight. Time, I decided, to send him back to daycare.
Finding someone to care for your young child while you work is not easy in any country, for it's dirty, dangerous work. If he's not swinging the cat by its whiskers or swigging the lighter fluid, he's exploring light sockets with a screwdriver or stuffing sliced ham into the CD player. You need professional caretakers for your little handful, not 14-year-old babysitters who will ignore the hazards and abet his crimes.
But in Slovakia, as elsewhere, sending your child to daycare (detské jasle) ensures that he will soon be back in your care, requiring merely hours in the company of his peers to refuel his store of infections with scarcely credible additions, such as rheumatism or scurvy.

My two-year-old son awoke one morning last week in the bloom of health: only one eye gummed shut with conjunctivitis, his obstinate 40C fever down to a smouldering 38C, his chronic bronchitis slowed to a phlegmy pulse, and his diarrhea beginning to show signs he had eaten in the last fortnight. Time, I decided, to send him back to daycare.

Finding someone to care for your young child while you work is not easy in any country, for it's dirty, dangerous work. If he's not swinging the cat by its whiskers or swigging the lighter fluid, he's exploring light sockets with a screwdriver or stuffing sliced ham into the CD player. You need professional caretakers for your little handful, not 14-year-old babysitters who will ignore the hazards and abet his crimes.

But in Slovakia, as elsewhere, sending your child to daycare (detské jasle) ensures that he will soon be back in your care, requiring merely hours in the company of his peers to refuel his store of infections with scarcely credible additions, such as rheumatism or scurvy.

If work you must, you may be better off assigning your child to a state daycare than a private one in this country. My experience has been that state schools, while not offering luxuries such as English language instruction or 24-hour care, may in fact be more tough when it comes to sending sick kids home. As a result, your child may get a few days more at a state school before he returns with leprosy.

The reason seems to be that state schools, supported by public money, are less likely to cave in to the demands of parents that their sick child be accepted for the day. As cruel as it sounds, parents paying upwards of 8,000 crowns a month ($160) for private care compared to as low as 1,200 crowns ($24) at state jasle seem to feel they have the right to expect the school admit their children for the day even when they are clearly ill.

"Our entire society is going through a tough time right now, and business people cannot afford to lose a day with a sick child," says Helena Doršicová, director of the state detské jasle on Hollého Street in Bratislava's Old Town district. "At the same time, we can't afford to let sick children infect the rest. Sometimes we have quite a tough battle getting parents to take their sick children home."

Agáta Oravcová, director of the privately-run Happy Kids daycare on the Koliba escarpment overlooking Bratislava, admits that the school had in the past had serious problems with insistent parents. "It's the hardest with foreign parents, who may be used to different customs regarding children," she said. "I've even had mothers in here telling me their kids are fine to go to school as long as their temperatures aren't too high. But this year, as of September 3, if we see a sick child we make sure the parent doesn't bring the child back the following day."

The difference in sickness policies may also stem from the different stresses that private and public schools put on staff education; Hollého's four caretakers have all completed specialised nursing high schools, while Happy Kids' three teachers are in fact just that - young women with pedagogical and English language training, although no health credentials.

State schools also impose a regime on their small charges that, in its socialist overtones, perhaps best suits the dawning social consciousness of the little comrades. Every child, for example, is issued a regulation outfit comprising overalls, T-shirt and slippers. The ban on street clothes not only prevents the better-dressed children of wealthy parents from enjoying a social advantage over the others, it also cuts down on the germs kids bring into the school from home.

On the other hand, if it's important to you that your child be taught English, or that the school not close for state holidays and the summer break, a private jasle is what you need. Happy Kids provides 24-hour care, except for four days around Christmas and the New Year. Compare that to the Hollého jasle, which was shut from July 27 to August 23, and requires children to be picked up by 17:00 at the latest.

In the end, while it may make some difference where you send your child, as far as illness goes, you can still count on your child getting sick regularly. My son seems as content at Hollého as he was at Happy Kids, and still spends one week recuperating for each week he spends in the company of his mates at the jasle. He has made fast friends at the state school with little Viktor (pronounced 'Biktor' through his permanently roadblocked sinuses), just as he did with wee Dave ('Dabe') on Koliba. And since he obeys neither English nor Slovak commands, my wife and I have decided we're better off saving our money to pay for the cat's vet bills.

Foreign Affairs is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the spills and thrills of life in Slovakia.

The next Foreign Affairs column will appear on stands September 24, Vol. 7, No. 36.

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