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Covid-19 and ECE Sector Reactions to Government Recommendations

Breaking News:  The situation is changing very rapidly. Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has just announced this afternoon (Monday 23rd March) that the country is to go into lockdown from midnight Wednesday. In regard to ECE services this means services will close from tomorrow, except for the children of essential workers. ECE services will close entirely from midnight Wednesday. ECE services will establish ways to deliver teaching online and remotely. Yet only the previous week, the Education Minister had said the risk of transmission of the disease in ECE services was low and services should remain open.  

 

Covid-19 risks cannot be well managed in ECE and Distance Education No Substitute for ECE

Dr Sarah Alexander
ChildForum ECE National Organisation

covid-19 teacher bubbleIntroduction

There are around 4,600 government licensed and funded early childhood education (ECE) services. As many as 64 per cent of children in NZ aged birth to 4 attend ECE and total attendances of children under 6 years were around 200,000 in 2019.   

On Friday afternoon 20 March 2020, ChildForum sent out a quick survey to early childhood service providers.  By 22 March (Sunday), 2,455 completed responses to the survey had been received.

From the survey feedback we learnt that at that time ECE services in general were not ready to provide distance education to children, and many respondents saw this as a ridiculous idea on several fronts, including:

  • the young age of children,
  • imposing on parents who are the experts of their own children at home,
  • not wanting ECE to be promoting screen-time in the home, and
  • equity issues when it comes to online access and technology for all families. 

Staff who worked in centres could work remotely to do non-contact admin, planning and assessment work, however there was some concern expressed that such work could dry up quite quickly since the main role of teaching staff is hands-on care of children and teachers need to be with children to be caring for them and playing, observing, photographing, assessing and planning what next in their learning. 

The findings revealed that the recommendations and much of government advice on keeping oneself safe and those around, was difficult to extremely difficult to meet in early childhood education settings. 

Because measures such as social distancing are quite impossible in the context of caring for young children, all it would take would be one child in a centre to test positive and the risk of community transmission would become very real.  As a respondent said, “It just takes 1 infant with the virus for our room of 14 babies, to get it and pass it onto teachers and the rest of the centre and their families.”

Background

On 18 March 2020 Education Minister Chris Hipkins said it is best for early childhood services to remain open because the risk of Covid-19 for children attending ECE is low.

Parents should continue to send their kids to schools and early learning centres unless they are unwell. However, as part of our wider planning for every scenario, it is still important that schools and early learning services are ready to provide distance education, not necessarily because of closure, but, in some cases, for periods of self-isolation.

The Ministry of Education is reinforcing to early childhood services the importance of the public health message to ensure that every person who begins to feel unwell stays home, and that every person regularly and thoroughly washes and dries their hands, avoids touching eyes, nose and mouth, and practises social distancing. The government has excluded ECE services from its request to limit gatherings to less than 100 people.

All employers are advised where possible to support staff to work remotely or away from the workplace. It is assumed that distance education is feasible to provide for young children in self-isolation.  

However, it would seem that no one has asked how people at the front-line of providing early childhood education are feeling. No one has asked whether it is possible to manage risk satisfactorily and follow each of the various above-mentioned recommendations. Therefore this quick survey was carried out to collect feedback to share with the early childhood sector and inform the Ministry of Education and Government as to how the sector is feeling and its perspectives on issues, such as whether distance education is a good idea and feasible for services to provide and how safe it would be for children from different families and adults to be attending the same service during the pandemic.  

 

The results

1. Being Ready to Provide Distance Education for Children Attending ECE

Providing distance education to children is not considered to be possible (78%) or only partly possible (16%) by an overwhelming majority of respondents (94%)

The reasons given were as follows.

1.1. A move to providing distance education online or via physical resources would undermine parents as their child's first educators, for example:

Just spending time hanging out with their parents is valuable learning.

At home, parents are their teachers. 

1.2. Parents could see an ECE service as over-stepping its role if it provided materials/ instructions on education to carry out with children, for example:

I’m a home base educator. I don’t think families would want me to do that, they prefer you babysitting their child.

Parents would need to take on role of teacher which they might not want to do and is not why they have their child at our service.

We’re there as a babysitting service so parents can work. We're not there to be teaching parents how and what to teach their children.  

1.3. An early childhood education service is not fulfilling its function well if it can be substituted by online or distance education, for example:

Our curriculum is a live document. We are not able to prescribe work online as this is not how our sector works. Anyone who says they can is not telling the truth of how ECE works.

Each child has an individual learning path which we can not document if we do not see them or engage with them. 

Learning at preschool age is all social emotional learning within the environment and relationships - impossible to do this via distance learning.

This is Kindy, play based, child directed learning. Online/remote learning is not a primary solution for us. 

1.4. The young age of children means distance education is not appropriate nor necessary, for example: 

This is totally inappropriate for the age group. I can't believe it's even being suggested!

Our babies and preschoolers are too young and will not be disadvantaged like school senior school students if their education does not continue.

Our under-5s do not need "formal learning", doing everyday life is sufficient.

We aren't a school and it's not compulsory to attend, plus we don't teach them through technology we teach them through play, relationships, experiences etc.

This is not primary school, intermediate or college. Online programmes do not work for ECE children. The majority of our children learn through spontaneous teaching moments. They cannot be planned for in an online lesson. 

1.5. Distance education via technology would not be in children's best interests and could not be accessed by all families, for example:

Almost all our Whanau do not have access to computers - only some have a parent with a mobile phone and even then data plans are not widely used due to affordability.

They are under-5s and screen time should be seriously limited.

No screen time is recommended for children under 5. Why would we suggest that because of a pandemic that this would change?

A 2-6 year old on a screen for learning?! This is madness. We are a no-screen centre and would find this to go against our philosophy.

Six per cent said their service could provide distance education. However, their comments showed that really this was because they also believed that distance education in online or paper-based form as might be provided for older children and adults was inappropriate. They commented that their service did not need to provide anything more than it was already doing to ensure children could learn from a distance because children learn wherever they are in any case, for example:  

Children play no matter where they are that’s their learning

Children are learning everyday, they can still learn through play in the comfort of there own home. But if parents still need to be at their jobs then their child will still need care from somewhere.

Just a small number within this 6 per cent, commented that distance education was achievable in the form of supplying pre-set materials for parents and caregivers to put in front of children at home and online face-time type sessions, for example:

We already hand out pre-writing sheets and activities for whanau to implement. We have done this prior due to our older children going to school.

It's important for them to have printed or paper based teaching materials instead of throwing children an iPad.

We are currently working on weekly activity kits for our children and families. We are also gathering information on families abilities to have online daily mat-time sessions, group baking activities, virtual play sessions with families to connect the children with their friends.

 

2. Enabling staff to work remotely

Having staff work remotely or away from the service is impossible (74%) or only partly possible (20%) in the ECE sector, because of the age of children and the need to be present.  For example:

As a service industry, that requires clients on site, I'm quite unsure how this is achievable.

I am currently going through this with my boss as I am immune compromised but they won't let me do work remotely or pay me to.

Most of the teachers are one-on-one with the children, especially the infants and babies. The only time teachers can work from the daycare is by doing portfolios from home and finishing off any non-contacts for their children they are assigned to.

If and when lock-down happens, non-contact stuff will be up and completed quickly... then what?

It would be unfair to expect teachers who work in centres to suddenly have children at home. I could catch up on admin work such as learning stories but that would only last a couple of days worth of work at a push.

How could we watch children, help them when they are hurt, change their nappy, etc

How the hell do teachers that need to be in ratio stay at home? 

Caring for children remotely, how is this even possible?

Remotely how? Video patting children to sleep?

For the home-based ECE sector asking the question as to whether people could work remotely seemed even more ridiculous than it did for those working in centres:

No I could not work remotely. I work at home with up to 4 children. I do what I can do. My business IS HOME BASED childcare.

One home-based ECE respondent mentioned that visiting teachers could carry on their usual work remotely without physically visiting educators and children, though educators would not be able to work remotely: 

VTs visit 3-5 educators a day going from home to home, therefore potentially carrying the virus from home to home. If we are allowed to use Skype or some other video call platform then we can ensure the home meets the safety standards etc while working in isolation and minimising the “potential contacts” if someone contracts the virus. Homebased has the potential to meet the need for childcare for essential services if schools and childcare centres have to close as educators who are well could still care for a small group of well children and their well families. Especially if VTs could support educators through the use of technology.

If services were shut-down 6 per cent thought that staff could continue to put in at least some hours, if not a lot of hours doing non-child contact work at home.  For example: 

There is plenty of paperwork (planning, learning stories, internal reviews, proposals etc) for staff to get on with, plus meetings could be held over Skype or Facetime.

Only for administrative jobs..Storypark, Google docs.

 

3. ECE Service ability to meet recommendations for protection and to reduce the spread of Covid-19

In early childhood education:

  • Making sure people stay home from their ECE service if they begin to feel unwell is impossible (38% respondents), or kind of possible but not achievable (43% respondents). Only 19 per cent said this was achievable.
  • Ensuring every person regularly and thoroughly washes and dries their hands is impossible (21%) in their ECE service, or kind of possible but not achievable (42%)
  • Ensuring people avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth is impossible in their ECE service (90%), or kind of possible but not achievable (9%)
  • Social distancing in staying at least one metre apart from each other is impossible at their service (92.5%), or kind of possible but not achievable (5%)

Therefore, the majority opinion of those in ECE is that it is impossible or difficult to comply with recommendations for protection from Covid-19.

Of concern also is that there are no restrictions on group sizes in ECE. It is possible for early childhood services to be licensed to have 150 pre-schoolers or up to 75 babies at any one time, plus parents and family members may stay for periods of time. Teaching and other staff members add further to the total number of possible people within an ECE environment. Making sure that no more than 100 people gather at their ECE service at any time is impossible according to 8 per cent respondents, or partly possible but not fully achievable according to 17 per cent.

The ChildForum survey asked if face masking could be implemented – would it help? The answer was that the practice would not work in their ECE service (33%) or perhaps could work but it was not certain it would help (55%).

People running and working in ECE services are feeling scared and nearly all added comments about what concerned them. Only a few weren’t scared, for example a hospital-based ECE licensed service:

Well under control here within the hospital, service is now mobile to the room as necessary, full personal protective equipment is available and correct fitting and removal of this has been completed for play specialists.

 

4. Concerns

Asked what their biggest concerns were right now regarding coronavirus, the most frequently mentioned concerns were as follows.

4.1. Blasé and nonchalant attitudes from the government and education ministry who are not showing an understanding that ECE is a high-risk environment, for example:  

Parents in self-isolation still bringing their children into preschool because the ministry are saying it's okay.

We have two people who are/have been in contact with people who have recently travelled and one whose husband has had contact with a confirmed case. We only have four staff.

Community Spread and the expectation to stay open regardless until the directive comes from the ministry or government.

My concern in our case is that we are an early intervention centre and all children also attend a mainstream preschool. We also require parents to attend so have a high number of adults attending. If a case did occur in our centre we would have children with close contacts in potentially 10-15 mainstream preschools throughout the city. It would be a mammoth task to contact trace all those people.

We are not testing enough people so how can we accurately say there is no community transmission?

That allowing 65 children in a small space at a centre is considered ok but my kids can’t do sport - in my opinion it’s one in the same when it comes to risk.

The Visiting Teachers adding risk to others by visiting multiple homes in a day and over a week. The numbers in Home-based ECE across the country are huge.

4.2. That people will get the virus, including the vulnerable, and in ECE they are helpless to prevent the spread, for example:

Children and particularly Māori children that already suffer from respiratory diseases and/or disorders. A lot of our children have regular visitation with their kaumatua.

The number of children sharing germs. These are young children who put everything in their mouth. There are approximately 28 children in my room alone.

I worry about being responsible for providing a venue responsible for transmitting the disease.

Especially our manager thinks that it is not serious and this makes me uncomfortable.

Children are getting sick every day coughing into teachers faces. The company says it’s okay don’t worry, they not think of teachers and children wellbeing but they think more of money from the parents. They tell the parents who want to take their children home to keep their children in the centre.

People are in denial! Still putting sunscreen on faces, changing nappies? How can you have social distance while completing these tasks? Teaching requires human contact and connection...we cannot provide this while being a metre away.

4.3. Silent carriers – not knowing who in their ECE service might have the virus, or that any person who walks in the door might, for example:

Families visiting from out of the area entering our kindergarten.

The unknown of who may not be following isolation rules or passing the virus.

Family traveling back from India and doing self-isolation in the family home and the children / adults still attending as they weren’t the ones who travelled.

4.4. That ECE presents a high-risk environment for the spread of diseases, for example:

We are not able to stop children being children. 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.

Parents send their children when they are sick or have fevers which are disguised with Pamol.

Infants and toddlers (pretty much all under 4) are not able to accurately describe that they are unwell and no under 5 is in control of if they attend so may feel sick and show signs of being sick but sent to their centre anyway as parents need to work.

We can't socially distance and are often sneezed on, coughed on etc. We're coming into winter and parents WILL NOT keep their sick children home as they must work. Children appear to be more symptomatic and could carry and spread the virus quickly in our environment.

Very poor hygiene practices - the service operates below regulations as it is and have made no attempt to make improvements other than the ones I have begun personally implementing.

4.5. The cost to their own personal health and their close contacts, including children and partners of remaining in a high-risk environment, for example:

Not being able to decide for myself if I come into work or stay home.  Feel like to keep job, I need to go to work.

Myself and my family getting it. I am asthmatic and have elderly parents. What guarantees do I have that we will all be safe?

I am worried about me being in contact with the virus and bringing it home to my immunity suppressed daughter.

I am a pregnant teacher of infants who will be exposing myself if there is a community outbreak. I also have children of my own in the centre.

The vulnerability of our workforce. I myself have asthma, and 5 out of 6 in our reliever pool are over 65, plus some are immunocompromised.

4.6. The financial sustainability of their early childhood service, for example:

Leaving it too long before we all close and then having to stay closed even longer because of it, resulting in job losses and financial problems.

We have no idea what the Ministry intends to do which is unsettling.  We do have Insurance, but once again, how long will that be paid out for? 

As a responsible manager, I would like to minimise risk to staff some of whom who have vulnerable relatives at home. I myself am in the 70+ age group and would love to close but that means absolutely no money coming in. I couldn't pay staff at all.

The financial impacts to my Educators, my families and to myself. My husband is one of the vulnerable so we rely on my income to keep the family afloat. If I close my service, we have no money to pay bills with. This will be catastrophic for my family financially, and for my Educators families also.

I am worried about being forced to shut down and having no government help, because I am a home educator, and we rely solely on parents’ payments.

4.7. The emotional wellbeing of children and parents, and staff having the additional weight of needing to try to help children and parents not feel overwhelmed and stressed, for example:

It's high stress now - reassuring parents whilst putting your own fears and opinions aside. Trying to teach and do additional cleaning. And as an assistant supervisor it's also trying to alleviate staff fears as well.

As teachers we are not medical professionals, although our parents often want us to be or seek our knowledge on illnesses, we are prepared as we can be. However, if someone was to bring Covoid-19 into our service and it broke out among more people, I would be devastated and heartbroken for those affected and guilty for the fact that the spread happened within our care when we are supposed to support the wellbeing of our tamariki.

Another concern was lack of cleaning supplies and unavailability of hygiene essentials such as hand sanitiser and gloves.

Comments were added about the lack of a plan at their service as to what to do, and the logistics of trying to keep each other safe and ensuring staffing. The lack of a plan made them feel more worried.

 

5. So what should happen?

First, there should not be an expectation, nor a requirement that ECE services move to provide distance education to children. Respecting parents as their child's first teachers and enabling parents and children to have time to be together without expectations imposed externally on them would be best for children's learning experiences and outcomes.

Second, the expectation that an ECE teachers' work can be done remotely needs to be scaled down. ECE staff could do work of an admin and paper-work nature, remotely. But for teachers and home-educators it was largely seen to be a ridiculous idea that they could carry out their principal role of caring for and teaching children without children. It needs to be understood by the government that to expect ECE staff to continue to work, in the same way that say a secondary teacher might be able to by teaching students online and marking assignments, is not possible with very young children.

Furthermore, it is clear if centres are closed due to evidence of community transmission it would be unsafe to place children in teacher's own homes to enable ECE teachers to work away from their centre. It would also be unsafe to allow home-based educators to continue to care for children, not only for the children and their families but also for the educator and the educator's own family members.   

Finally, many people felt upset, even angry, that the government had not yet moved to close ECE services and did not show an understanding that ECE environments were not safe for children and adults to be in due to Covid-19Over half (52%) felt that all ECE services should be closed now. An additional 32 per cent said ‘perhaps’ services should not remain open. Only 16 per cent said services should remain open for children well enough to attend.  In the case of community outbreak, the percentage that felt that all ECE services should be closed increased to 77 per cent and 15 per cent said that ‘perhaps’ services should not remain open.

Only 8 per cent felt services should not be closed, mainly to reduce any possible financial suffering of owners, for reasons of supporting parents working in essential services with childcare, or providing respite care and a break for children from conditions they may be experiencing at home.

 

Discussion

Epidemiological perspective
Overseas, epidemiologists have not seen any large outbreaks linked to transmission in school settings. An argument therefore from an epidemiological perspective is that closing ECE services does not have to be an immediate public health measure and should only be considered when there is sustained transmission and there is a need to eliminate contact with each other altogether.  

When children are in ECE grandparents are less likely to be asked to assist with childcare However, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s advice that people over 70 and those with compromised immune systems stay home means that keeping ECE services open is no longer necessary to protect the elderly.

A just released paper in the journal Pediatrics provides evidence on the spread of the virus in children and suggests that children may play a ‘major role’ in spread of pathogen.

Sociological perspective
From a sociological perspective, it may be better for children to keep to their normal routines and continue attending early childhood education. Identifying the people children have been in contact with is made easier when normal routines are maintained. This would seem to perhaps provide the strongest argument for keeping early childhood services open; assuming that to help flatten the curve ECE services are all able to take at last the basic measures to protect against Covid-19, which this survey shows not to be the case.

Economic perspective
From an economic perspective, the emergence of Covid-19 has changed everything. Everyone will probably have to make a sacrifice. Businesses will close. In the education sector this may mean some early childhood services may not be able to financially recover. Teachers who are older, are pregnant or have compromised immune systems will have to take extended (probably unpaid) leave or give up their jobs and potentially their careers. Continuing to work can place at risk the children, partners, and other family members of staff. This is a hard sacrifice to make, but what if the government does not decide to close ECE services, and then those working in ECE and family members contract Covid-19 and use the healthcare that could have been available for someone else?

Frightening also is the thought that their service could be responsible for putting children, adults, and the community at risk. However, Covid-19 is not the early childhood sectors fault. The government has responsibility to act. It needs to take on board that ECE settings present a high-risk environment to both adults and children. Over half of respondents felt that ECE services should be closed now and not wait until NZ has reached Alert Level 4 of sustained transmission and community lockdown. The uncertainty and high-risk is making the sector very scared.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

APPENDIX

A random sample of comments received is pasted in below for your information. Due to space this is limited to just a small number of quotations per topic.

Making sure people stay home from their ECE service if they begin to feel unwell

We have an admin person who is very capable of assessing each situation and their advice is pretty much taken as a given and whaanau do not mind.

We have become very strict with any illnesses, especially temperatures and coughs due to what is currently happening.

Although parents will drop off after dosing with Panadol it other medication to mask symptoms because they are worried about not working and getting paid.

Easier at the moment than in a normal winter - our parents are erring on the side of caution in the current climate.

We wouldn't have any staff.

Not enough relievers.

We often get told that we need to come to work unless we feel like we are dying, as well as that we don't earn enough to stay home if we are unwell.. especially because we only get 5 sick days and are constantly exposed to sickness

it just doesn't happen, we have parents that don't/won't pick up child when rung, we have nurses on shift and police people on shift.

It’s hard for young children to communicate headache and sore throat symptoms, cough and fever is ok to notice. 

Ensuring every person regularly and thoroughly washes and dries their hands

Absolutely achievable. I only have 4 children in care so this is not an issue. We have already been doing this for the last to weeks.

If we work really hard but this won’t stop he spread as children are constantly mouthing everything including resources, toys, cuddles and their hands.

This is achievable if we as teachers make the effort to do so. We might need to look at our practices again though as we currently use shared bowls for hand washing and I think in the current situation we should be changing this.

We don't have enough staff to man the bathroom.

Impossible in terms of visitors and whanau.

What if a child refuses- we are not allowed to manhandle kids plus kids put hand in noses/down pants etc.

It's not safe for children to be constantly using hand sanitiser if they keep pitting their hands in their mouth.

Too many children 70+ in one space, running out of soap... minimum ratios means it’s impossible to keep a check on all the kids, especially when it only takes one child to have a violent behaviour outburst to take 2 teachers away from the remainder of the mass of children.

Under two year olds shard zone many germs in a blink of an eye. 

Ensuring people avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth

We can talk about this at mat time but really, little children are all about touching their face, and yours too if you are close enough,lol.

These are babies and toddlers not physically possible.

Were teachers children run up on us all day everyday we cant not hug and look after them.

I can't count the number of times I've given an infant a bottle and he/she has had their fingers in my mouth, nose, etc. 

Practising social distancing

This is impossible, children get handed to teachers, parents are close and children teacher need to be closer and interacting.

Definitely no chance. How do you keep a distance when you have to change a nappy, or get a child out of a tree? Where will they all eat? And that's aside from the fact that they just don’t understand the concept. You can’t stop children playing in a group when you have 30 of them.

Making sure that no more than 100 people gather

Centre is small space. Licensed for 20 babies. 35 and 40 let alone staff and parents picking or dropping off.

With 70 children and 11 staff, and parents at drop off and pick up time this can go well over 100 people in the centre, as we are mixed ages and all in one area.

Our ratios sit at 1:4 in home based

Face-masking

Children can not gauge facial expressions hidden behind a mask.

It maybe scary for infants and its vital for communication that our faces are visible so that they can pick up on body language and facial cues.

Young children would constantly take them off - it's hard enough to ensure all are wearing hats in summer, particularly the babies, let alone something on their faces.

A child won't come near an adult with a mask, or rip it straight off. I personally couldn't wear one - I'd feel claustrophobic.

They did this in Taiwan immediately. Children all coped and spread reduced. Children are carriers

 

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