Childcare: ‘So, you go out and take the child kicking and screaming from the car?’
Number of questions remain as to how industry can operate in the coronavirus era
Naoimh O’Dwyer, owner of Knollcrest Nursery in Moycullen, Co Galway. She expects she will need to install more sinks, both indoors and outdoors to be able operate in the coronavirus era. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
The country’s 4,500 providers of centre-based childcare and early education received the first firm indications of what reopening will look like for them and the 206,000 children in their care in an email from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) last Friday evening.
At Knollcrest Nursery in Moycullen, Co Galway, owner Naoimh O’Dwyer is wondering what the “play pod” system will mean for her centre, which, with a staff of 14, caters for 98 children, aged two to 12. She is also unsure how many parents will want to use her services from June 29th, when she normally closes for the last week of July and the first two weeks of August.
Only about 2,000 providers of early years care and education operate during July and August, according to the DCYA, so the reopening of creches at the end of June could be viewed as a smaller-scale trial for what’s ahead from September, when the free pre-school – the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme – and school-age childcare are due to resume.
Indeed, the Department has said that as services reopen it “will keep the operation of the guidance under close review and take appropriate updated action as required”.
Like many centres, Knollcrest caters for various permutations of attendance, ranging from full- and part-time daycare to after-school care. Which throws up the question of whether a pod is a self-contained pod for a week, a day, or, says O’Dwyer, “just three hours” at a time?
About half of her nursery’s children are enrolled for ECCE and just half of those would normally continue to attend during the summer. She says she will have to seriously consider whether or not to reopen on June 29th.
“Unless I have clear guidance to follow, I couldn’t afford to take chances and I would be very worried about the viability of it.” On the other hand, she sees the summer as a good opportunity to try out the new way of working with reduced numbers.
For proposed staggered drop-offs, O’Dwyer wonders what happens if parents miss their slot due to heavy traffic or being delayed leaving the house. She is also puzzled at the guidance “that where children are dropped off and picked up by private car, the accompanying adult should remain in the car and a childcare worker should come to the car to receive the child”.
“So, you go out and take the child kicking and screaming from the car, waving goodbye to mummy at the window? Interesting,” she muses.
With the Department promising more guidance over the coming weeks, “will we be getting suggestions of what we need to do on June 27th?” But she reckons her centre is well placed to meet many of the challenges, with plenty of outdoor space and various entry and exit doors.
All childcare services, not just community-based ones, she says, will need funding for adaptations. In addition to the “basic Covid stuff” of signage and hand-sanitisers, she is expecting to at least need to install more sinks, both indoors and outdoors.
O’Dwyer acknowledges that the DCYA and its advisers are working really hard to come up with creative, workable solutions “but sadly it is going to be at a huge cost” and childcare centres already operate on very tight margins.
“I think a lot of people will deeply consider will they reopen again. It is going to get really tight and they are going to think ‘is it worth it?’ You could find supply will diminish. We don’t have anything like the government support or national investment that Denmark would have.”
O’Dwyer is not worried about new cleaning demands as she believes most services, like hers, would have always been mindful of minimising the risk of cross-infection among small children. However, she hopes that children will still be allowed to bring their “dodies” and “blankies” from home.
“At the end of the day they are children. You have to try to understand the psychology of children, the attachment and security that is so important to their growth and early development.”
Knollcrest’s books are full for September and she does not know how changes in capacity and demand will affect that. She is delaying sending out enrolment packs to new families because she will have to prioritise children already with her, yet she doesn’t know what their parents’ needs will be after this radical economic upheaval.
Elaine McQuillan, the manager of five StartBright community childcare settings in Clondalkin, Lucan and Tallaght, stresses the importance of getting children back in to their centres. “They are social little beings; they learn through socialisation, they crave socialisation.”
The centres cater for around 300 families, some of whom would be very vulnerable, with early intervention and prevention being an important part of their work. “A large portion of our families are not working families, so they access free pre-school and part-time hours to support family life.”
The big challenge in reopening, she says, is not only minding the physical health of children, their families and staff, but also prioritising their emotional well-being and mental health. “We need childcare to open up our economy but we also need to make sure little people feel safe coming in and that it is an enjoyable experience.”
McQuillan has been looking at how her Danish counterparts have been implementing pods and is considering how deployment of the centres’ 50 employees is going to work – and what about those who have underlying conditions and can’t return to work?
She has noted the big emphasis in the Danish guidelines on having children outdoors as much as possible. Two of the StartBright centres are purpose built – one in Clondalkin and the one in Lucan – so their doors lead out into a big open space.
“We are looking at sheltered space in those gardens – looking at purchasing or building structures so we can have kids outside in small groups.” All the children have wet gear but the staff don’t, so they are looking into buying that.
She envisages that extra cleaning and management of the movement of children will also push up the number of staff required. “You still need all these bodies and eyes to manage transition through spaces and make sure things are cleaned and put away afterwards. There is a lot of manpower involved.
“Whereas the kids used to be the manpower,” she adds, explaining how they were encouraged to be in control of their environment and to reset things for the next group. “Now it will be ‘everybody in, we have to clean before the next group comes out’.”