Since last week’s publication of the government’s roadmap, setting out how we all get back to the now infamous “new normal”, everyone in the UK – be they in England with its plan to re-open in the next few weeks or in Wales and Scotland, where a more cautious approach is being followed – is coming to terms with what this actually means for them, their family and their livelihoods. As has been clear from the debate on schools, early years and childcare re-opening, there are just no simple answers.
I was lucky enough to be able to attend the education technical briefing that the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty led last week, joined by a number of the senior SAGE scientists who are advising on England’s reopening strategy. I saw it as a unique opportunity to listen to the latest evidence from our members’ perspective and to try to get some of the questions they are currently grappling with answered. Whilst I certainly didn’t get all the answers, I want to share some of my reflections in the hope they help you reach the answers for your childcare setting.
One fact was certain. The risk of COVID-19 infection will reduce in the next few weeks as the measures we have all committed to continue to make a difference but it will only go away for good if we have a vaccine in the future. This means that when you open your setting you will still have to adapt your practice to minimise the risk of spreading the virus. In England we know one of the discussion points is whether to open in June or wait until September, as some of our members have said but one important question you need to answer is whether making adaptions to your practice will be enough to reassure you, your staff and your family given your personal circumstances.
It was also clear that the current national approach to managing lockdown and re-opening will need to change. The virus is already at varying levels across the UK. Some parts of the UK have no COVID-19 cases, London’s are in decline whilst other areas such as Liverpool and Hartlepool are still at challenging levels. The rate in Wales has led to stricter lockdown measures remaining. The role of local authorities in monitoring and managing future potentially intermittent local lockdowns still has to be defined, more important will be how childcare and early years settings are agile enough to adapt their service, so that remote support in partnership with parents becomes part of their overall service in the future. Providers – be they childminders, pre-schools or nurseries – will have to adapt their business to be more resilient and able to cope, potentially with occasional temporary closure.
Another important message was that the scientists – like you – recognise that social distancing is irrelevant if you are under five years old. Indeed very difficult if you are under 11. The panel was at pains to point out that social distancing is only one of the hierarchy of controls we have all – through government information – rapidly become familiar with. Spotting symptoms; isolating individuals who may have the virus, effective regular hygiene, appropriate use of PPE as well as social distancing all play their part. Everyone who works in childcare and early years has a head start on this issue. They live and breathe risk assessment and procedure every day. Taking time to review how your setting operates and the things that you can change to reduce risk is the first step you need to take to help you decide if re-opening now, later or not at all is your decision. No one is ever going to be complete free of the risk of catching COVID-19 but there are effective tools and strategies you can use.
Last key certainty for me was that children, as we all know, are missing out on their early education and, at the crucial time when they are developing so rapidly. So of course we all agree that getting children back to their early education as soon as possible is important.
I wanted to start with these certainties because much of the technical briefing was far less straightforward and, as your membership body, PACEY needs to be honest with you. I know you know this already but the scientists were clear that they are still learning about COVID-19 and there is still so much we don’t know. This is why there has been so much debate about the return of children to school and early years and childcare.
The evidence is showing that children are less likely to be hospitalised due to severe Coronavirus symptoms than older people, especially men and anyone with an underlying condition. But children are also more likely to be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, so harder to identify and isolate as soon as possible. This is a specific challenge for our sector, when so much of what we do is in close proximity to children all day long.
So, as you think about reopening your setting, you have to consider the health of yourself, your staff, the other children in your care and, if you childmind, the other members of your family. The only way you can decide if reopening is right for you is by talking to your staff, your parents and, of course, your family.
We also don’t know if the risk of infection will change as lockdown is eased; you may reopen your setting only to find you have to close again for a while if the R level increases in your area. Most of the modelling of infection rates is utilising information from other countries or modelling done whilst the UK was in full lockdown. As this slowly is eased, this modelling may need to change too.
We are working on a range of ideas to support you to build your business resilience to such circumstances but if you reopen, you and your parents will need to accept that this level of uncertainty will become part of your new normal. Maybe a mixed model of face to face childcare and remote support is the new early years offer for families?
Finally, with so much we still don’t know about COVID-19, how you deliver early education in your setting will evolve in the coming months, From the simple task of drop-off and pick-up to creating cohorts or bubbles of 3-5 children who are cared for together all day and every day wherever possible are all new concepts that we need to develop to ensure we can deliver childcare and early education safely and effectively. The complexity of many childcare services, of afterschool care or supporting children who attend more than one setting in any week does increase risk and may not always be possible in the future. Key will be partnership with parents so that everyone understands why and supports the changes you will need to make. How do you keep consistent bubbles of children when so many attend just some of the time; how do you support afterschool children if you can’t mix them with your pre-school bubbles of children and what do you need in terms of parental permission for all of this? Longer term, how do “bubbles” and other limits impact on a child’s development? The more we explore these changes the more we have to challenge ourselves to avoid over protection to the detriment of learning and development.
All of this is so tough to contemplate at the best of times but more so when you haven’t been open for some time or open but earning only a fraction of what you normally earned. Continued uncertainty around childcare and early education funding, particularly if you choose to stay closed in June in England. For childminders also no sense of how the limited self-employment help they are due to receive may extend in the same way that other providers will benefit from extensions to furlough, are compounding the stress and worry so many of you are facing. PACEY is clear that even if you open if will be at reduced capacity and that key will be government recognising that open or closed from June, settings will need transitional funding to remain viable during the long road to recovery.
With research today showing that most parents are anxious about sending their child back to childcare or school, it is the changes you will be making to your practice in the next few weeks and the effort you place on parental partnerships that will be key to a successful re-opening if and when you decide to do so. PACEY will do all it can to provide the information, advice and support you need to decide. Every childcare and early years settings is so different, ultimately it will be your own personal risk assessment that helps you decide if this new approach to childcare is for you?