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BLOG: Nurseries on the front line

We have 30 day nurseries, six of which are on hospital sites and several more are near hospital sites or police headquarters. Therefore, our focus is to provide places for key worker children. The country, the Government and the NHS are relying on us to enable key workers to work during this crisis, and we are very proud of our brave, professional, caring staff. 

There is a huge financial risk to this focus. We have been advised to expect our insurers not to pay out, even though we have business interruption insurance. I feel that everything I have worked for over 30 years is on the line – as I expect every other business owner in the land also feels. Deliberately keeping nurseries open and running at a loss is stressful and soul destroying, and feels like we are moving backwards.

But this has to be endured –  we have to keep our brave hospital staff at work – albeit that nursery staff are working for low wages, have no access to protective equipment, nor even to shop opening slots like the NHS, so we are also trying to ensure they have food and toilet paper!

What we have done: in the nursery

We have closed 10 nurseries and we were able to transfer the children to nearby nurseries with places. We are accepting all children with two parents who are both key workers, or one parent if lone parent. We are charging for these children in the normal way, including additional charges, deposits and enrolment charges.

We are rethinking charging for parents not using the service. Initially we cancelled all invoices for all parents not using the service and put the hourly charge at zero so we can track the losses, but as some are still receiving childcare vouchers we are working out a system to invoice parents fairly.

Prioritising online enrolment and fast settling in is helping us move new children smoothly from other settings. We open from 6am until 8pm if needed. We are considering opening at weekends and are already open on bank holidays, subject to demand and being able to staff it. We aren’t opening overnight because we don’t have beds and baths – but if you do, that’s worth considering. 

We have stopped all extra curricular activities off site like Tops Forest School. We have even stopped toothbrushing to reduce transmission and infection risk.

We have introduced many new hygiene rules, such as parents not coming into the nursery, staff wearing more PPE (when we can get it), far more hand washing and disinfecting handles, electronics, surfaces, toys and equipment, more frequent laundry, and spreading the children and staff out into as much space as possible, plus maximising outside garden time.

Local authorities and Ofsted are regularly updated of closures and also numbers of staff and children confirmed or suspected with the virus, and of numbers attending too. Staff are also contacting vulnerable children at home who normally come to nursery, to help the social workers. 

What we have done: for staff

Initially we guaranteed all staff would be paid for three months come what may, from capital funds we had built up and borrowed to develop the company. I knew this would bankrupt us beyond three months depending on what else happened, but I wanted to reassure the staff to keep them at work and positive.   

All staff from the closed nurseries were put on furlough, but any fit and able staff were put on the list to be transferred or pulled back into a nursery if needed.

Everyone had a furlough change of contract sent out and we expect that some staff will stay on furlough for the duration (those from ‘at risk’ groups, pregnant, elders or with small children in their homes).

We have told all our staff that they will receive 100% while working, including overtime if they have to stay late because their parent stays late at work, and all those sent home on furlough will be paid 80%.

Scheduling is done each week, but if a member of staff shows symptoms of COVID-19 they will be sent home immediately and a furloughed staff member brought back in. We need this flexibility to reduce the spread of disease and keep the nurseries running efficiently.

For our hospital nurseries, we are trying not to fill up more than 55% and we keep a nearby nursery open even with extremely low numbers to use as back-up: for example, Tops Royal Bournemouth Hospital is 55% occupied and we have Boscombe on 30% and Christchurch on 10% within a couple of miles.

Where a nursery has closed, any phone calls or email enquiries have been passed to an open nursery or area manager to deal with because we understand that people on furlough are not allowed to do this type of work.

We have cancelled all face to face training – moved to online where we can (not first aid practicals for example). We have cancelled all face to face meetings and moved to online. We have stopped all audits, and a lot of the normal paperwork, so colleagues can focus on the children: we trust them to do their very best, and I’m sure they are. Some are even making videos and putting play activities up online to help parents with their children at home!

What we have done: for our nursery buildings

We have done risk assessments for closed nurseries – we risk break-ins, vandalism, fly-tipping, pipe leaks etc. - and even more so with no one there. We have turned down the heating to the frost protection setting and it will cost us £500 per site to disinfect all the water systems when we reopen. We have arranged someone from maintenance to drop in once a week.

We have advised the insurers of each closure but have had no information yet on what they will charge for an empty building - it could be more!

We now have a comprehensive ‘how to shut down’ a nursery list, split into sections like Health and Safety, Admin, Communications, Operations etc to try and remember everything that needs doing and getting it done. That is certainly going to form a key part of my Business Continuity Plan in the future!

What has been done for us:

It’s been a struggle to communicate with some Local Authorities – some won’t even answer their phone or emails; others have been helpful with transferring children to our own sister nurseries and/or to other nurseries and childminders. I can see that there will be a real benefit with nurseries working in partnership with childminders through this challenging time to ensure that key workers families get the support they need.

Local Authorities will pay us for all of the children hours that we advised at the beginning of the term. Government has said they will pay the furlough – all 100% of the 80% we are paying to staff as well as the Employer National Insurance contributions and minimum employer pension contributions. If it wasn’t for this, we would go bust.

We have stopped our Business Rates direct debits for next year and have written to our landlords to ask for a holiday from rent. We have also been allowed to stop our capital repayment loans to the bank for a year.

We have stopped our waste collections from nurseries that are closed, but we are being billed until the end of the month and will reduce others with low numbers as appropriate.

This hasn’t covered everything – and things are changing all the time so may have moved on by the time you read this. But I hope this has been helpful in outlining some of the steps we are taking in response to the outbreak – and an idea why we are having sleepless nights and very long days.

What has struck me most of all is how fortunate we are to work with some truly amazing, wonderful staff who are so dedicated and committed to doing their very best. They deserve all the thanks, praise and support that we can give them. When we joined the clap for NHS staff last week, I was also clapping for every childcarer in the land – by caring for key workers’ children, they are contributing to saving lives and helping us all through this extremely challenging time.

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