The Irish Times view on reopening childcare: a crucial step forward

Early years services are vital to resuming economic life

Childcare provision is vital to allowing parents get back to work. Photograph:  Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Childcare provision is vital to allowing parents get back to work. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

 

The reopening of non-essential shops this week has seen many parents forced to return to work without access to childcare. Early-years services are crucial to assisting mothers and fathers resume their jobs. They are also vital to getting the economy up and running. Yet, under the Government’s roadmap to reopening society, it has been puzzling that it has taken so long for this vital element of support to be put in place even allowing for the complexities involved.

The Government finally released details yesterday of a much-needed funding package to help reopen the childcare sector from June 29th. The €75 million initiative includes grants to help cushion 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 fund up to 85 per cent of staff costs.

Crucially, parents should not have to pay higher fees than they did before the pandemic. The package also recognises that a reduced number of children are likely to attend in the initial weeks of reopening and will allow providers to operate with less parental income. But uncertainty remains over how many childcare services will actually reopen. Of the 4,500 childcare facilities in the State, the majority tend to close during July and August. This leaves about 1,800 which may end up reopening, based on last summer’s figures.

Covid-19 has exposed very many flaws in how we do what we do, including a dependence for early learning and childcare services on a system that is unfit for purpose

There are only 10 working days before services are due to resume. Many, which have been closed since mid-March, say they have incurred large bills and overheads and may not get access to grant aid in time. Some providers also warn that there is no specific funding for personal protective equipment or for children who need one-on-one care.

More broadly, there is a risk of a sustainability crisis. The pandemic has affected the earning capacity of many parents and some childcare workers may not return. However, the Minister for Children has insisted the financial support on offer will allow providers to turn a profit with only half of their regular numbers.

For now, this is a positive, if belated, step. A growing body of evidence indicates that childcare settings are not a high-risk environment for the transmission of Covid-19. Younger children have been missing out on vital socialisation and developmental opportunities.

Covid-19 has exposed very many flaws in how we do what we do, including a dependence for early learning and childcare services on a system that is unfit for purpose. Not least among the defects is the expectation that those who care for our children – in common with those who meet the needs of older people and who provide so many other essential services – should do so for derisory levels of pay. Our priorities are flawed too.