After launching our Omicron long day care pulse check survey, we received over 100 responses within the first few hours, highlighting the stress many services are experiencing, and the desire get the word out in order to find potential solutions. When the survey closed after 5 days, we had received 244 responses from across Australia, 151 of which were from NSW.
Note: Our impact survey for preschools will be sent out w/c 21 February so that we can examine the impact of Omicron on the first three weeks of operations.
Key Findings: snapshot summary
The leading issue impacting the long day care services who responded is workforce, and over one-third of services surveyed are resorting to the Critical Worker Exemption to maintain operations.
Enrolments are down for 50 per cent of services who responded, with 16 per cent of respondents saying enrolments have dropped by 25 per cent or more compared to the same time last year.
72 per cent of services surveyed report attendance being lower over the past fortnight compared to the same time last year. Only 22 per cent of services surveyed report attendance being about the same and 6 per cent experienced an increase.
In NSW 81 per cent of respondents agreed that their service would benefit from the continuation of free RAT supply from the NSW Government.
Services are reporting that on average 59 per cent of their teams are professionally fatigued to the extent that it is impacting their ability to do their jobs. Workforce shortages, exacerbated by Omicron, are making it worse, with staff having less time off the floor for planning and operating at ratio when normally they operate above ratio.
Key findings: Overview
We already know from other reports that the pandemic has exacerbated the long-standing workforce shortages in education and care. Our survey confirmed that this is a major area of concern in long day cares, and that the Omicron surge has been a source of disruption for a majority of services who responded.
61 per cent of respondents reported that they had staff vacancies at their service and, of a range of potential issues concerning respondents, workforce shortages were the leading concern – with 46 per cent reporting that workforce is ‘of great concern requiring my service to respond to regularly.’
For not for profit services, staff vacancies seem to be affecting slightly fewer services — 53 per cent of not for profit respondents reported they had vacancies.
Omicron has proven to be incredibly disruptive for long day care services. 83 per cent of respondents reported that in the past two weeks, staff at their service had missed work due to COVID-19 related reasons such as testing positive, being a household contact or having symptoms.
It must be noted that survey bias may be a factor in this high number; people who have been impacted by Omicron are more likely to respond to the survey, however, it is safe to assume from the responses that the illness related impact of Omicron is significant.
Over summer, it became clear the number of cases would balloon — with a lower level of hospital admissions due to high levels of vaccination across the population, the Government relaxed the rules around close contacts, replacing them with rules for household contacts only. Shortly after, education and care workers were eligible to be exempt from the household contact rule, under the critical worker exemption.
CELA has reservations about the critical worker exemption — children are at the centre of our work, and they are too young to be vaccinated. While Omicron appears to be milder in children than adults, it is still a serious disease, and it is especially so for those with underlying health conditions. A systematic review of 24 studies found that around 5 per cent of children with co-morbidities (including but not limited to chronic respiratory disease, immune disease, and obesity) develop severe COVID-191.
Nonetheless, we found in the survey results that 36 per cent of respondents from NSW had resorted to utilising the critical worker exemption. Such decisions are made because education and care is ‘essential work,’ and also because workforce shortages, combined with Government funding models for long day care, give service directors little choice.
For 39 per cent of respondents, enrolments have not been affected; their enrolment numbers are similar to this time last year. A small minority of around 10 per cent have enjoyed an increase in enrolments, but 51 per cent have experienced a decrease. In fact, 16 per cent experienced a 25 per cent or more drop in enrolments.
In terms of attendance, respondents reported that over the past two weeks, attendance was lower than what is usually expected. 72 per cent of respondents reported a drop in attendance over the past couple of weeks when compared with the same time last year. 22 per cent said that they’d seen attendance drop by more than a quarter.
In the first week of February, nearly 10 per cent of respondents reported that only 50 per cent or less of enrolled children attended.
The lower attendance impacts services’ bottom lines. In late January the Commonwealth Government adjusted its rules to allow services to waive the gap fee for children not attending, and offered unlimited allowable absences. This has enabled services to collect CCS income even if children are not attending and means that families don’t have to pay fees for services they are not accessing.
The support helps families and it helps services, however services also rely on fee income from families to help manage their fixed costs. Last year in the extended lockdowns the Commonwealth offered Business Continuity Payments to keep services going in the face of lost fee income; our pulse survey results confirm services need such assistance again.
For instance, one respondent wrote:
Our service is almost at 100 percent occupancy but we are still haemorrhaging funds as we have had to pay casual staff rates just to keep our doors open. Last week due to 80 per cent of our staff in isolation we have had to offer our families the gap fee waiver which has impacted our income dramatically. Unless we have an injection of funds by the Government we will not survive.
The Commonwealth Government is also offering services the opportunity to apply for the Community Child Care Fund Special Circumstances Grant if they have had to close or partially close due to COVID-19, but the guidelines on exactly who may or may not be eligible have not been updated by DESE since its announcement on 27 January.
Rapid Antigen Testing
81 per cent of respondents agreed that their service would benefit from the continuation of free RAT supply from the NSW Government, and 74 per cent agreed that the twice-weekly proactive testing is useful.
Some commented that they are only using the RATs when symptomatic – perhaps out of concern as to whether there is enough supply.
We asked respondents “What percentage of your team would you say are experiencing professional fatigue to the extent that it is impacting their ability to do their jobs?” The average response was 58 per cent.
The ever-changing rules and educators needing to adapt to them and make sense of them in a high-stakes environment is taking its toll on many in the sector.
As one respondent wrote:
I think we need to have a survey of Educators’ and Directors’ wellbeing similar to the one that has been undertaken in Melbourne for medical staff. I know that personally it's not about enrolments etc, but more about the ever-changing regulations, advice and the juggling. The mental load over the last two years has been huge in so many ways and the toll that it is taking on the industry will be hard to recover from!
Another respondent wrote about the long-standing issues of funding, poor pay and conditions and the early childhood sector’s ‘forgotten’ status that have only become worse in the face of the pandemic:
Can we just address the entire mess of funding arrangements in NSW for the entire sector? How can the sector be supported when we are perpetually losing great staff, families move on and forget about our plight, and in 20+ years of my time in industry, the conversation around better pay for staff of all levels of qualification has never successfully been addressed, nor has the concern for families trying to access affordable and available placements when they require them really been met. Whether the government thinks they are helpful or supportive, it really doesn't feel this way in the early childhood sector when we are constantly forgotten, we are no longer considered a 'high risk environment' even though we work with unvaccinated children, and we are always just expected to keep on working, no matter the consequence to our health and wellbeing.
Perhaps one of the biggest contributors to fatigue is workforce shortages — our pulse check found that most services were managing Omicron related staff absences and staff vacancies by operating at ratio instead of above ratio or by reducing staff administration and planning time, bringing staff back on to the floor.
18 per cent of respondents reported needing to close a room due to Omicron-related staff absences, though for 34 per cent of services, it didn’t matter as fewer children were attending.
While these strategies might enable a service to get through the day, they are not sustainable. The quality of the education program will suffer if this situation is allowed to continue for extended periods, as well as putting more strain on an already depleted workforce.
Our sector needs immediate help in the face of Omicron, as well as a sustained push to resolve lingering workforce issues
As the current surge in Omicron cases declines, we know Government will be tempted to withdraw supports and return to business as usual. Indeed, some of our survey respondents reported that families had resigned themselves to catching COVID-19 sooner or later, and hence were sending their child regardless of high case numbers in the community. While a return to full attendance is welcome, providing learning benefits for children and the opportunity for parents to resume work, the education and care sector needs to be supported to recover from the financial shocks of Omicron and previous lockdowns. Services and educators have borne the costs of over two years of pandemic, with depleted financial reserves and staff professionally and personally fatigued from the constant and significant changes to operational requirements.
Our sector needs immediate help to get through the Omicron outbreak, CELA is advocating for:
- The continuation of free RATs for education and care services, including expanding the program to children so that it aligns with the program offered in schools;
- Short-term business continuity funding and/or retrospective grants to help services who have been hit hard to keep the doors open.
- Urgent skilled migration.
Regardless of the pandemic situation, lingering workforce issues need to be addressed
While we may be on the other side of the Summer Omicron surge, there is much we still don’t know – such as whether or not another variant may emerge, or whether the boosters which much of the population had in recent months will be adequate for future outbreaks. To ensure we have a robust education and care sector which can withstand whatever the future holds, longer term thinking and investment is needed. These requirements are not new; we have been advocating on these points for years:
Longer term workforce measures need to include:
- Improved pay and conditions for educators, to more accurately reflect the value and importance of what they do, and the skills and responsibilities that are required;
- Innovations used to address shortages in early childhood teacher workforce and in other sectors such as retention payments, relocation allowances, scholarships and other incentives;
- Partnerships between sector and training providers to encourage new entrants to the sector and improve graduate outcomes.
Funding arrangements need to change so that:
- Quality education and care is affordable for all families; and
- Suitable ongoing business continuity payments for services so as they know what to expect when future outbreaks disrupt income.
Thank you to our CELA members who responded so promptly to our Pulse Check – already this data has been forwarded to the NSW Department of Education to add weight to our call for support, and it will also be used to advocate to the Commonwealth Government.
Read more about what we are advocating for
1. Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, “Research Brief: COVID-19 and Child and Adolescent Health”, 13 September 2021, page 2, https://www.mcri.edu.au/sites/default/files/media/documents/covid-19-and-child-and-adolescent-health-140921.pdf