Dr Sarah Alexander
Right up until it was announced that the country would be going into lockdown the government’s message to early childhood education (ECE) services was that it was safe to remain open and fully operational.
The government says it relies on expert health advice - which is good. However, in relation to early childhood education, the results of a survey whilst we were at Alert Level 2 showed the failings of listening only to health advice.
The Ministry of Education has indicated to service operators that it supports doors re-opening on Tuesday 28th April. Though there's no indication yet the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins will say yes to this happening. Hipkins has put forward a thought already that maybe there could be a progressive re-opening of the education sector, with perhaps ECE being the last to be re-opened, rather than it all happening in one big bang (Epidemic Response Committee, 9 April 2020).
Is it truly necessary for children to go back to ECE so soon as the 28th April? And importantly, is it safe for this to occur?
Re-opening services can be taken as urgent to occur alongside supporting businesses to go back as quickly as possible to alleviate the economic impact.
However, note these three things:
1. There seems to be a lack of data on how many people absolutely must have access to ECE for the purpose of care because they are needed back at their workplace and can’t work now, and their child is enrolled.
2. The care of children of essential workers is already being provided for through a government nationwide scheme that sees carers paid $25.00 an hour to care for children in their own home or in the children's home.
3. Attendance at ECE is not compulsory for children (education becomes compulsory from age 6 in NZ). When opened ECE services need to have sufficient children to be financially viable and to retain staff. Should services be reopened and not able to operate at usual capacity because of Covid-19 risk and/or parents keeping children at home if they can, then this could result in a loss of ECE teacher jobs as services have to scale back on staffing. It could also force a greater number of ECE services to close permanently than under the current situation where funding is continuing for child numbers prior to the lockdown and the wage subsidy is available.
There could be solutions other than re-opening ECE immediately that could work for people who can't work at home and who are not essential workers with funded in-home care provided. For example, solutions might include employers supporting flexible work hours, the provision of part-time work options to allow adults in the same household to stagger childcare responsibilities, and allowing employees to have children at work (for examples as we saw happen in some workplaces when school teachers were on strike last year).
Should ECE services re-open before we are out of the Covid-19 crisis, has thought been given by the government as to how to ensure that any child who is unwell does not attend? Parents who have used up all their sick leave, their annual leave and fear losing their job, if they take another day off will be under immense pressure to still drop their child off at ECE.
Children’s early learning is not likely to suffer by keeping services closed until it is safe to re-open, because learning doesn’t start when a child enters a service and stop when they leave.
What we’ve seen due to the Covid-19 crisis is that the Ministry of Education has realised that participation in ECE is not the be all and end all as far as ensuring good educational outcomes, because parents are the first teachers of their children.
Feedback from the early childhood sector to a survey reported by ChildForum has given us pause for thought on the question of the safety of services running until such time as we are out of this crisis.
Personal protective equipment is not routinely worn by or recommended for early childhood teachers as it is for health care workers. But ECE is a high-risk health environment for teachers and other workers.
For example, one survey respondent said:
“On Friday, I was poohed on, a child spat into my mouth, and as I was going over hand washing technique two children were sucking each other’s toes.”
Teachers and other adults can’t act as robots and not attend to children’s needs. For example, babies need to be fed and changed. A toddler can’t be left to cry after falling over and is likely to need at least a cuddle or first aid.
At school age, children can sit at desks a metre or two apart, can be expected to comply with hygiene and social distance rules, and sit passively with their phones or books during breaks. That’s not the case in ECE. Putting objects into their mouths is something infants do as part of exploring their environment. Young children need to play, to touch, to explore, and to personally interact.
The only full-proof way to keep every surface including books, puzzle pieces, toys and every bit of indoor and outdoor equipment clean for every second of the day would probably be to keep it all locked up and ban any joint learning activity, or tie children up - and that can’t happen!
Children are little transmitters and may not show symptoms of Covid-19 – so in services that can have up to 150 children attending at any one time, imagine how many people at their service, at home, and in their communities they could pass Covid-19 onto before it is detected.
There are also workforce issues for the ECE sector that can’t be ignored.
First, a lot of people in the workforce are in the higher risk demographic, including pregnancy or being over 65. Many have family members and contacts who are vulnerable. But can feel pressured to turn up to work, or not get paid or lose their job.
Second, on top of the problem that many in the workforce are in the higher risk demographic, many services were already reliant on relief teachers to meet minimum regulatory staffing requirements before Covid-19, so where are the teachers going to come from to staff services?
For example, an ECE survey respondent said:
“I myself have asthma, and 5 out of 6 in our reliever pool are over 65, plus some are immune compromised.”
Until we can be certain Covid-19 is eradicated in the community, ECE cannot be considered a safe working environment for staff and not safe for any child, including the children of essential workers.