Childcare reopening: ‘It is as if the Government do not understand the needs of children’

Childcare services can reopen on Monday – but providers are struggling to cope

Childcare providers are allowed to reopen from Monday but many are worried how they will manage to operate under new coronavirus measures. Photograph: Getty Images

Childcare providers are allowed to reopen from Monday but many are worried how they will manage to operate under new coronavirus measures. Photograph: Getty Images

 

On Monday, the veterinary practice in Co Cavan where Jennie Milligan works is reopening after the coronavirus lockdown, but her two-year-old daughter Ellie’s creche is not; Milligan and her partner received a message from their childcare provider earlier this month saying it would not be possible for them to reopen within the new coronavirus prevention guidelines. The childminder who looks after their five-year-old daughter Rachel is still deliberating over whether she is comfortable accommodating other families in her home.

A Dáil Special Committee on Covid-19 Response heard from childcare organisations and unions this week that there is a doubt over the capacity of childcare providers to cope with possible demand when creches are allowed to reopen on Monday.

Under new Government guidelines issued to childcare providers at the end of May, children must be divided into “pods” of between six and 12. Pick-up and drop-off times should be staggered, and children brought by car must be collected from the vehicle by a member of staff.

Handwashing facilities

Other measures include covered outdoor play and queueing areas for parents, and additional handwashing facilities. To accommodate children under these new rules, providers planning to reopen on June 29th have had to act fast to make the necessary changes to their premises.

Only about 1,800 of the State’s 4,500 childcare services usually open in July and August. But many of those that would ordinarily stay open over the summer are simply not ready, and others have decided not to reopen until the situation becomes clearer in September, leaving parents like Milligan, who are expected to return to work, wondering how they will cope.

“I completely understand why the creche is not opening and why the childminder is in two minds,” Milligan says. “I would not be comfortable with my younger child being collected by a staff member from the car-park as she has not been at creche since March 10th, and has suffered badly with separation anxiety. I’m in two minds too about whether I’m comfortable with them spending full days in another house with other children at this point. I feel really stuck.”

A €75 million Government fund offering grants to assist facilities with the cost of hiring cleaning staff, additional hygiene products, and to purchase new learning materials, outdoor play equipment, and shelters has been broadly welcomed by childcare providers, but some say it will not be enough to ensure the viability of their business. Difficulty with accessing the funds has also been reported by some providers who spoke to The Irish Times this week. 

Lucy Davey, who owns Ballintogher Playschool and Afterschool in Co Sligo, describes the reopening grants as “paltry”. The school, which usually caters for 22 early childhood care and education children and 20 afterschool children, employs two other qualified early years teachers in addition to Davey.

To physically meet the new guidelines, Davey estimates she will have to spend €4,000. This will cover building materials to divide one large space into three smaller spaces, and fit two additional toilet rooms; new toy and furniture equipment to facilitate smaller groups; and new fencing, outdoor handwash stations, floor stencils and signage.

Lucy Davey, owner of Ballintogher Playschool and Afterschool in Co Sligo. She describes the reopening grants as ‘paltry’. Photograph: Lucy Davey
Lucy Davey, owner of Ballintogher Playschool and Afterschool in Co Sligo. She describes the reopening grants as ‘paltry’. Photograph: Lucy Davey

As the Government reopening grants total €4,500, there will not be enough left over to pay professionals, so much of the work will be carried out voluntarily by the school’s “wonderfully supportive parents”.

Their afterschool numbers will be reduced from 20 to 12. Even with fewer children, Davey says she would require three new members of staff in order to ensure the minimum two per “pod” stipulated in the guidelines, costing an estimated €66,000 per year.

With so much work to do, and uncertainty remaining about the feasibility of the guidelines, Davey has decided not to reopen her playschool until August 31st. “Hopefully by then the situation will be a bit clearer,” she says.

“The reality is, without further investment and a radical change in the funding model and the way in which early childhood care and education is viewed by Government, the new guidelines will mean very little in reality, and will not be met or implemented with any more than lip service.”

Sharon McCready of Cedar Montessori in Leopardstown also says the process of preparing to reopen and apply for funding is arduous and frustrating.

“We have three classrooms and a large garden that has to be risk assessed and prepared. Most of our small toys will need to be stored. Rooms all deep cleaned and reorganised. Work is under way but it’s a very slow process – access to workmen and materials is very difficult. Everything is taking longer,” she says.

The school would usually be closed during the summer, so they will also reopen at the end of August. Demand for places is high.

“We have 33 children coming back in the mornings, and 10 in the afternoons. All confirmed this week.”

McCready says she has not yet received any of the promised Government funding.

“Childcare providers go back to work Monday on the back of personal debt with no funding approved and no allocation of the grant money promised by Katherine Zappone,” she says.

Emer Nagle is one of the many parents who contacted The Irish Times in recent weeks concerned about access to childcare as the country unlocks. Since March, Nagle and her husband, both architects, have been juggling full-time work from home in Cork while also caring for their two children, aged five and three.

“I feel like I am not looking after my children properly or doing my job properly. While my husband and I take our children out for breaks during the day, our children spend a lot of time indoors, in front of a tablet. We are exhausted,” she says.

They had hoped their daughter’s creche would reopen on June 29th, but were notified earlier this month that it would remain closed until the end of the summer. Her son’s summer camp had also been cancelled, but announced this week that it would go ahead after all, to their relief.

The outdoor play area at Cedar Montessori in Leopardstown. Owner Sharon McCready says the process of preparing to reopen is arduous. Photograph: Sharon McCready
The outdoor play area at Cedar Montessori in Leopardstown. Owner Sharon McCready says the process of preparing to reopen is arduous. Photograph: Sharon McCready

“The day I found out my daughter’s creche was not reopening, I felt very emotional. I feel so sad that my kids are not enjoying a summer with their friends, with lots of activities and being outdoors. It is as if the Government do not understand the needs of small children and the importance of care work, or that both parents need to work in order to afford a house or rent,” she says.

“I am worried and drained: working from home with two small kids is very, very hard. It is not fair on my children. I desperately want to know whether school will return to normal again in September, and how long this situation will last.”

Some childcare facilities have decided to close for good, leaving parents completely in the lurch.

“Our childcare provider informed us in early June that they would not be reopening and are looking to sell their business,” says Vivienne Ahern in Dublin.

“Both myself and my husband are working from home and are doing our best to accommodate each other’s work calls and commitments, but we have no childcare support for the foreseeable future. I have not been able to try to find a place for my son elsewhere until facilities start reopening. Hopefully we will be able to get one, as we cannot return to work fully until we have full-time childcare in place.”

Parents who were already having difficulty securing a childcare place due to high demand before the pandemic are doubly worried now about capacity. Caragh Madden, mother to five-month-old Anna, is due to return to work after maternity leave on December 8th.

Capacity constraints

“Before Covid-19 I rang and emailed all creches in my locality to secure a place in a baby room. At the time I only managed to go on waiting lists as there was already capacity constraints,” she says.

“My husband and I were very worried as we are both from Cork and have no family to rely as a back-up nearby. Now with social distancing rules, our worry has increased as we have no relationship with any creche, and we fear we will not get a place at all. We don’t know what to do at this point; hopefully we will find a childminder on mindme.ie closer to the date.”

“Aoife” (who did not want her name used, for fear that she would lose her child’s place), is a nurse and a single parent of a seven-year-old boy, living in north Dublin. She was redeployed to a coronavirus project that she could do from home during lockdown, “which was a lifeline, as the only other option was to take annual leave or unpaid parental leave. This was not an option for me as a single parent,” she says.

Her son’s childcare facility is reopening this week, but with reduced hours and increased fees.

“I will be paying over €1,000 a month for less hours and no hot meal. The fees this time last year were €44 a day from 7.30am-6.30pm with a hot meal. It will now be €55 for 8am-5pm, and no food,” she says.

She believes childcare facilities are using families as “pawns” to get more support from Government. “Parents are being thrown under a bus. I am at the end of my string here.”

Jennie Milligan is returning to work three days a week from this Monday. Faced with no other option, she and her partner are going to try to manage without formal childcare, with the help of both sets of grandparents.

“This is really a short-term measure,” she says. “I am pregnant with our third baby and due in October . . . I will consider very carefully my options after maternity leave.”

She loved the time she spent at home with Rachel and Ellie over the past three months. “I feel strongly that as a country we need to reassess how children are cared for in the years before they start primary education, and the options open to parents when deciding on how best to have a good balance between work life and family life.”

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