Recently the federal government released the National Framework for Managing COVID-19 in Schools and Early Childhood Education and Care. The Framework sets out six guiding principles to manage COVID-19 in schools and early childhood education and care settings.
The principles are:
- ECEC services and schools are essential and should be the first to open and the last to close wherever possible in outbreak situations, with face-to-face learning prioritised
- Baseline public health measures continue to apply
- No vulnerable child or child of an essential worker is turned away
- Responses to be proportionate and health risk-based
- Equip ECEC services and schools to respond on the basis of public health advice and with support from public health authorities where required
- Wellbeing of children and education staff to be supported.
You can view the full framework here.
The objectives and principles describe a balancing act
The objectives and principles of the framework in many ways reflect the tension between balancing the need to open up the economy and ensure children engage in face to face learning as much as possible, while limiting transmission and minimising risk to children (particularly vulnerable children and those with underlying health issues).
The objectives of the Framework are to:
- Protect vulnerable children and staff at higher risk of severe disease within ECEC and schools, including those with disability or severe chronic health conditions.
- Minimise disruption to face-to-face learning from COVID-19 transmission in ECEC and schools, because of the mental and physical health, and social development advantages from ECEC and school participation.
- Minimise broader community transmission and keep it within the capacity of the health system.
- Minimise the broader workforce disruptions for parents and carers1.
Operationalising the framework is the responsibility of the states and territories
The framework states that “While the Framework’s objectives and guiding principles are predominantly aimed at ensuring national consistency, specific measures will be implemented through individual State and Territory operational plans and through localised arrangements within ECEC services and schools.”
In recent days the NSW and Victorian Premiers announced their operational plans, which have a strong focus on a safe return to school and are in alignment with each other.
Under the plan, twice weekly surveillance testing using Government supplied rapid antigen tests will occur for primary and secondary school students, teachers and early childhood educators. The tests will be provided by the NSW Government under a 50:50 funding arrangement with the Commonwealth for at least the next four weeks. RAT tests have already started to be delivered to long day care services over the past two weeks by the NSW Government and will be provided to preschools prior to commencement of the 2022 year.
For early childhood education and care, it means that educators can access surveillance testing twice a week, but not children. RATs are not suitable for children 0-2 in any case, but it does leave children aged 3-5 in early childhood education and care out of the program.
Up until now, anyone who has a positive COVID-19 case in their household must isolate for at least 7 days and receive a negative RAT result before returning to work.
In January, the Prime Minister announced that early education and care workers, as ‘essential workers’ would be exempt from household isolation requirements. This will mean that educators who live with someone who tests positive to COVID-19 could return to work if they had no symptoms and a rapid antigen test showing them to be negative.
It is likely that this will soon be in place in NSW early education services.
CELA CEO Michele Carnegie said, Including early education in household isolation exemption must be met with extreme caution and be tied to rigorous testing. This is a high risk solution to keeping services operational when the people they work with are babies and young children, who are too young to be vaccinated.
Furthermore, given we know that people can get re-infected with the Omicron variant, we need to take proactive measures. This should include commitment by government to provide ongoing access to free RAT tests, to enable at least twice-weekly testing of all staff, not just for the next four weeks. Early education and care services are sites of high transmission. We need to do everything we can to avoid them becoming sites of rolling infection and reinfection in children and staff, which will create ongoing workforce pressure and service provision disruption, crippling the financial viability of the sector.
Any exemption for educators who have COVID-19 in their households is at odds with two of the objectives of the framework to “Protect vulnerable children and staff at higher risk of severe disease within ECEC and schools, including those with disability or severe chronic health conditions” and “Minimise broader community transmission and keep it within the capacity of the health system.”
The framework and the announcements about states’ and territories’ operational plans also highlight the ambivalence of both levels of government regarding early childhood education and care and its place in the community. Our sector is told that we are essential, but the government remains silent when it comes to finding funding for free RAT tests for surveillance testing of children aged 3-5. Perhaps more troublingly, they remain silent when it comes to viability support for services who are enduring partial and full closures as positive cases arise with the income loss this presents.
At the coalface – what the framework and the operational plans mean for education and care services
We are hearing from members about how positive cases are impacting their services. Testing and isolating if individual educators assess themselves as high risk due to exposure to a positive case is recommended, not mandatory.
This means that educators who had assessed themselves as at a high risk of contracting COVID-19 after being exposed to a case would need to:
- access their own annual leave,
- access sick or carer’s leave if they or someone they care for is unwell,
- take unpaid pandemic leave, or;
- if experiencing severe financial hardship, access the Commonwealth Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment.
These rules create a financial incentive for educators to assess themselves as moderate risk and keep working, but many educators will have a concern for the children they educate and care for at work, or vulnerable family members, and prefer to isolate despite the hit to their bank balances – which in turn creates challenges for service directors to manage workforce shortages while trying to stay open.
CCS funded services are able to waive the gap fee for children who have tested positive to COVID-19 or where the service has been directed to close or partially close by a state regulatory body because educator to child ratios cannot be met. This provides funding support for both families and the service. However, the Commonwealth states that services are encouraged to explore all options to stay open and to provide evidence that they have done this.
A guarantee for children to access early childhood education and care – and an assurance for the ECEC sector?
The Mitchell Institute in October 2021 released a report, “COVID-19 and early childhood education and care” which pointed to the precarious funding arrangements for early childhood education and care, particularly CCS funded services where daily attendances directly impact income2. Viability for services and job security for teachers has not been anywhere near as insecure for schools because funding of schools is entrenched – an entitlement for all Australian children to a free education arose in around the 1840s due to a recognition among the governing elite of the value education plays both in building the economic prosperity of a nation and in ensuring an informed and functional democracy3.
The pandemic has helped sharpen policy maker’s awareness of the importance of the sector for children, families and the economy.
Perhaps one of the most important statements in the Framework is this:
Children are entitled to an education. ECEC and schools are essential and should remain open wherever possible to maximise their wide-ranging benefits for children, the community and the economy.
The implication of this statement is that if Governments believe early childhood education and care is essential and that children are entitled to access it, they should ensure such services are funded appropriately – in order to get through the immediate challenges of reduced or uncertain attendances, frequent closures or partial closures, and over the longer term. Integral to the successful operation of early education services is a healthy workforce who are not subjected to rolling illness due to insufficient testing regimes.
Find out more about CELA's advocacy:
Advocacy on the agenda
1 National Framework for managing COVID-19 in Schools and Early Childhood Education and Care, January 2022
2 De Courten, M., Hurley, P., Broerse, J., Hildebrandt, M., Matthews, H., Pennicuik, S., (2021). COVID-19 and early childhood, education and care. Mitchell Institute, Victoria University. Page 21 https://www.vu.edu.au/sites/default/files/covid19-and-early-childhood-education-and-care.pdf
3 Craig Campbell and Helen Proctor, (2014) “A History of Australian Schooling” Allen & Unwin
4 Centre for Policy Development, (2021) “Starting Better: a Guarantee for Young Children and Families”, https://cpd.org.au/2021/11/starting-better-centre-for-policy-development/