Elodie McGrath (4), has only just come into the creche when she spots what’s wrong about the giant teddy doctor sitting in the corner of the room – he’s not wearing his face mask correctly.
She walks over to pull the blue surgical mask perched on his forehead down to his nose and mouth. “For the virus,” she says.
Childcare provider Evelyn Reilly made a point of buying new medical-themed kits for role play for the reopening of Kidz@Play at the end of June, both here in Maynooth, Co Kildare and in Kilcock, where the service is managed by her daughter, Jess McGrath. Small children play to make sense of the world around them and pre-school educators can get vital insight into their well-being by listening in.
Reilly is so happy to hear the building full of shrieks of laughter again. She started running a playschool more than 30 years ago, but moved to this purpose-built premises in the extensive Newtown Hall development just three years ago.
“I painted my way through the pandemic,” she laughs, standing in the outdoor area and pointing to new coats of sage green on the fences, along with cornflower blue and mulberry on play fixtures, such as the mud kitchen and tepee. Outdoor play is more important than ever in this coronavirus-conscious age and she is in a “queue for carpenters” to erect a Perspex gazebo and more canopies to enhance the all-weather nature of the space.
What does sadden her is that the new pod-style of operating means the children can no longer roam freely in and out through the double-doors of the two main ground-floor rooms. The groups must take turns to go outdoors, never mixing and with each pod having their own sets of toys that will be sanitised at the end of the day.
But it’s a subtle change as the staff try to make it very much “business as usual” for the children. In Reilly’s words, “all the guidance, the updates of the guidance and the next updates of the guidance” is a matter for management and staff and doesn’t need to impinge on the children.
The children take the extra handwashing in their stride, as they’re used to that at home, and the painted footprints on the pavement outside make a game of waiting to use the hand-sanitiser before the children leave their parent at the door. Bubble machines were laid on as a special welcome on the first day and the children were “joyous” to be back, says Reilly.
For all the commentary by parents about the relief, after nearly four months of lockdown, at being able to hand their off-spring into the care of others for a while, likewise most children, it seems, were very glad to get away from their parents too and to reconnect with early-years educators and friends.
The word on the ground is that there was much less anxiety among returning children than expected and reopening of childcare is going well. Even those working with disadvantaged children talk of less signs of regression in their development than they had feared, although there have been some negative aspects.
Bronagh Mooney of Creative Kids and Co, who had many sleepless nights before reopening her service in Basin Lane, Dublin, on July 6th, said everything "went like clockwork" and it was "fantastic to just stand and hear the 22 kids playing" in their newly created outdoor classrooms
Operating with reduced numbers over the summer gives centres a trial run of new procedures before the influx of children on the free pre-school scheme in September. They’re also the “guinea pigs”, as one provider suggests, for the reopening of primary schools.
Some of more those involved give their perspectives:
Community childcare manager
"On the extreme side of caution", is how Mick Kenny, manager of the Urlingford and Johnstown Community Childcare centres in Co Kilkenny describes their reopening. With reduced numbers of children and combining staff from both centres into operating in Urlingford only, they are operating a system of small, tight pods. There is no need for floating staff, as they have double the amount of staff that technically they need.
“It allows for people to go on breaks, or nappy change or if there is a child who is upset, you can give the TLC.” Personally, he believes floating staff “would defeat the purpose of pods”.
Kenny is speaking from his “castle” – the reception desk has been turned into a playful-looking fort with a Perspex screen and a child-sized entrance through which his young charges step from the care of their parents into the hands of staff.
A few children showed a little initial anxiety on the first day but most raced in and were “so happy to play”. He thinks pods give the place a “cosy feel” and he admits that while he rarely credited the department with good ideas, this was one.
Kenny’s fear that there might be a child too upset to stay was unfounded. Staff would never force a child to stay, no matter how inconvenient that might be for a parent, he says. “The child is paramount.”
Provider of services to disadvantaged children
Unexpected regression in self-care abilities among some children has been reported by Barnardos’ staff after the re-opening of on-site services at the organisation’s seven early-years centres.
These children come from families with more socio-economic challenges than most but their parents did engage in the support the charity continued to offer during lockdown, says Kerri Smith, assistant director for children's services at Barnardos. "Some families we would have presumed would have struggled more did quite well and some maybe haven't done as well as we had hoped."
The focus of help for parents during lockdown was around the curriculum and the need to support children’s social and emotional development, she says, with less emphasis on living skills, which is where there have been disimprovements.
“We have seen regression in quite a lot of the children. They are not able to go to the toilet [independently] and they are looking for spoons at dinner time, when they were using knives and forks before; they can’t put their coats on. I think it was because parents were doing it for them because it was easier.”
But overall, there does not seem to have been as much regression in development as staff feared among the 180 or so children attending the centres in Dublin, Cork and Thurles.
Smith directly oversees three of the centres in Dublin, where nearly 95 per cent of the children returned in the first week. They were delighted to be back and there was little chatter about Covid-19.
“They are certainly aware of it and talk a little bit about it. We are not seeing they are traumatised or highly anxious but sometimes that takes time. I do think it is early days.”
She also notes that the number of children being referred to their services has increased.
While Barnardos was able to continue some speech and language support through lockdown “we have seen the gaps”, she continues. “The children are probably not where they would be if they had been in the service all along but the parents have really worked hard.”
In all the talk about reopening childcare for working parents, Smith has felt passionately that children’s need for pre-school must be part of the conversation too. “The fact that they are so delighted to be back shows it.”
It was a “massive relief” for Elaine Smith to be able to bring her son Ríagan (3) back to the Urlingford Community Childcare Centre and it has been great for him too, she stresses, “he’s so happy”.
The separated mother found it “extremely difficult” to juggle his care along with working from home for a construction company. However, she had still thought she might not send her son back into childcare until September because he was born with a heart defect that required surgery.
Although he has been healthy since, “I was paranoid through the whole lockdown,” she says. “I barely just did food shopping when I had to – my parents did it for me. I was a bit nervous of him going back.”
But she was reassured by all the communication from the childcare centre about steps they had taken to ensure children could come back safely.
“The more I thought about it, now is probably the best time because the virus is at its lowest and everybody is taking massive precautions.”
Ríagan showed not the slightest concern about leaving her at the door of the centre, as is now required.
“As soon as he got there, he ran straight in. I had to call him back to give me a ‘goodbye’. He has been the same every morning.”
He attends the creche from 8am to 3pm and on his return is “more chilled”. He was so excited to see the “amazing” staff, she adds, “it puts your mind at ease. You know he is well looked after”.
A parent of a boy at Kidz@Play says the change in him after the first week back there “was unreal”. She hadn’t realised the extent of how being away from his routine and friends would affect him and she is so grateful the creche’s reopening has given him the chance of “a little bit of normality among this madness”.
For Grace Kerr (5), “meeting my friends and my teachers” was the best part of being back in pre-school. It was “boring” during lockdown she says; she went for walks and “had to do homework” with her mother, Maggie Neary, who works at the Urlingford centre that Grace attends.
The very confident pre-schooler says she is glad to be back doing art and “I like going down the slide outside. It’s very fun because my friends play with me”.
There are lots of different toys. “Big blocks and you can build castles, you can build walls, you can build a gigantic dinosaur – you can even build a car.”
She also thinks the new castle entrance is “very cool” but her mother is too big to go through it, “you have to open the door”.
Asked has she noticed anything else different, she replies: “There is not a lot of boys and girls any more, that’s the only new thing.”
How often does she have to wash her hands? “Every time I want to play with something different.”
Early years tutor
“The children have coped so well – so much better than any of us expected,” says Charlene Curran who usually works in the “wobblers” room at the Urlingford centre but is now with a pod of five ranging in age from one to three, as siblings must be in the same group.
“We were all a little bit anxious not knowing how it was going to go,” she says but while there were “a few tears” from a couple of them leaving their mothers “they all came in the door – and once they were in, they just got on with it and it was like they had never been away. It was brilliant”.
From watching the children play, “none of them seems to have regressed or have social issues”, she reports. They have also adapted to the temperature checks staff are doing on them, not only on arrival but every two hours during the day. “They see you coming and stick their forehead towards you and then turn around and walk off,” she says.
Once the children have left, “we do a deep clean on everything they have handled or touched during the day. All the toys are sterilised”.
While staff are doing more cleaning as they go too, as far as the kids are concerned there is no difference. Curran thinks it helps that although staff must socially distance from each other, they are able to hug the children.
“One-year olds look for cuddles more often than the older ones. It’s lovely that we can feel comfortable and that we are not doing anything wrong by cuddling them.”
She and her colleagues take breaks on rotation, one from each pod at a time, and follow the social distancing required. “Everybody steps out of each other’s way – it’s the new normal now,” adds Curran, who is as delighted as the children and the parents to be back. “It’s the first time things have felt normal in months.”
Three of the four children that Tusla-registered childminder Anne Ryan looks after at her home in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow returned to her the first day she could reopen.
Aged one, two and three, “the children walked through the door as if they had never left”. In fact, they all had issues at the end of the day about not wanting to go home. They obviously had a great time playing, she says, with no parents there trying to juggle work.
The big change is having to stop her open-door policy, where parents could knock, walk straight in the front door “and make themselves at home”. Now the children are dropped at the side-door and come in through the utility room where they wash their hands.
There are also fewer toys out for them to play with. “I want the toys that are out to be ones that are easy to clean at the end of the day. Also, it’s easier to keep an eye on what’s being played with and who’s putting what in their mouths.”
Otherwise she reckons her service is much the same, although she has had to introduce a stricter sickness policy about children with a runny nose or a cough.
No child with a possible symptom of Covid-19 can come in, to protect them all in the house, including her own two children, aged seven and eight.
Early Childhood Ireland has judged that the summer reopening of creches is going well, according to its director of policy and advocacy, Frances Byrne. "It will be vital that the Department of Children monitors this period carefully though, so that it can be properly assessed, and lessons learned can be fed into the full reopening of 4,500 settings which is due to happen from mid-late August."
Comprehensive reopening resources for providers, educators and parents, helped significantly, while the funding package provided by Government was critical. Further financial supports will be needed to meet any capacity gaps, whether they are due to fewer children, the need for more staff or specific Covid-19 measures related to, she warns. “Unless funding is stabilised for the rest of the year, there simply won’t be a sustainable and child-centred early years sector by 2021.”
Sustainability is also an issue for some childminders, says Childminding Ireland (CI), where parents have withdrawn children or are seeking reduced hours because they have lost their jobs or are working from home. Just over half of its members indicated they were resuming services at the end of June.
Positives of reopening reported by childminders included the joy of being reunited with children and establishing “welcoming areas” outside their homes has worked well. On the negative side, a CI spokeswoman adds, the extra cleaning required is hard work and some parents “continue to try to send soft toys and blankets in with the children, which is not advised”.