Juggling jobs alongside caring or home schooling has become a way of life for frazzled families across the country since the doors of schools and childcare facilities shut in March.
With retailers reopening this week, many families were left in a situation where workers had to return to employment without access to childcare. Economically, it was the equivalent of trying to jump-start the economy with the hand-brake on.
So, the Government’s announcement on Wednesday of a funding package to help reopen the childcare sector from June 29th is welcome news to many parents.
The €75 million package includes grants to help ease the cost of hiring cleaning staff, buying hygiene products and purchasing additional learning resources, outdoor play equipment and shelters. The temporary wage subsidy scheme will continue to provide up to 85 per cent of staff costs.
For childcare providers, the moves tick most of the boxes that they said were essential to reopening.
Crucially, parents should not have to pay higher fees than they did before the pandemic. It will be a condition of the support package that providers who sign up for it will have to charge the fees they charged prior to the pandemic.
There are major question marks, however, over how many childcare services will actually reopen this summer.
The funding package comes just as a majority of the estimated 4,500 childcare services in the State prepare to close during July and August. This will leave about 1,800 facilities open, based on last summer’s figures.
The reopening of creches also comes too late for parents who hoped to access the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) year, which runs from September to June.
In addition, many childcare services, which have been closed since mid-March, say they have incurred large bills, overheads and worry about whether they will be able to reopen on a sustainable footing.
With just 10 working days before services are due to reopen, it is uncertain whether many facilities will be able to access grant aid in time to reopen. As one provider put it: “As soon as I reopen my door on the 29th, I go back to all my bills.”
Based on the experience of childcare providers abroad, many parents may initially be reluctant to return their children to childcare facilities due to health concerns.
The Federation of Early Childcare says the supports do not go far enough to save struggling creches from going bust. It says childcare providers will be operating at a huge loss, even when the wage subsidy scheme is taken into account.
It expects less than 40 per cent of children to return, while “huge” sums of money will be needed to transform and modify facilities.
"I believe that unless things change we will be looking at hundreds of creches going bust right across the country," says Elaine Dunne, chairperson of the federation.
Seas Suas, the association of independent early learning and care providers, estimates occupancy levels will fall as low as 25 per cent, with one in four returning.
“With demand down and costs significantly up for at least six months, this funding will quickly run out,” it warns.
However, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone says the support package is generous enough that a provider will still be able to break even if they have just 40 per cent of normal capacity. With 50 per cent or more, she estimates, providers can begin to turn a profit.
Time will tell if the support package is enough. In the meantime, many parents will be waiting anxiously to see how many providers open up and whether they will be able to resume work and support their families.