The outbreak of COVID-19 and measures used to contain the virus present many risks for the childcare and early learning sector. For the time being, childcare and early learning centres must remain open, but both the health risks and the financial viability of this decision are having different impacts across the sector.
This week Amplify! looks at how the early education sector is being affected by COVID-19 containment measures, shares interviews with directors of two services facing viability challenges, and asks the government for viability funding.
Latest support package is not enough
“Early childhood education and care services across Australia will close unless there is a clear and simple funding mechanism made available to them as a matter of urgency.”
Last week the government announced a support package designed to help prevent centre closures, including increasing the number of allowable absence days, relaxing evidentiary requirements for additional absence days and waiving the obligation for services to recover gap fees from families, were a service is instructed to close (read more).
Unfortunately, circumstances are changing so rapidly that this may not be enough to save thousands of community and not-for-profit services. Instead of using allowable absences, many families are choosing to withdraw their child/ren from care to reduce household costs. The effect is that current enrolments do not accurately represent community need for childcare.
“The support package announced last week is tied to enrolments and with so many parents cancelling enrolments, this package in its current form is no longer providing the support previously intended,” says Michele Carnegie, CEO of Community Early Learning Australia (CELA).
In regular correspondence to Minister for Education Dan Tehan, Ms Carnegie has expressed concern that “early childhood education and care services across Australia will close unless there is a clear and simple funding mechanism made available to them as a matter of urgency”.
CELA calls for viability funding now
“Yesterday’s JobKeeper announcement will provide a lifeline for many services, however those that have compounding issues such as drought, fire and now plummeting enrolments, may not be able to wait till they receive these payments in May.
“The community and small providers who we represent invest in children and do not have nest eggs or borrowing capacity to fund them through this financial crisis.” says Ms Carnegie. “Many of these services meet the needs of highly disadvantaged children and families and we simply can’t afford to lose them.”
CELA is calling for viability funding now to prevent the sector from collapsing, which would require a more expensive recovery package later.
“When we are on the other side of COVID-19, there are certain levers that need to be pulled to lift the economy as quickly as possible. Childcare is one of these levers, Parents and carers can’t return to work if there is a childcare shortage, placing even more pressure on households and economic recovery,” explains Carnegie.
A compounding effect – drought, unemployment… and now this
Michele Schiller, Director of long daycare centre Little Possums in the NSW far western town of Warren, said drought throughout 2019 and resulting unemployment in the area saw occupancy drop from 94% to 62% as families found themselves “without the money or the need for childcare”.
Due to physical distancing measures, centre occupancy has now dropped to 26% with many parents choosing to stay at home and cancel their child’s enrolment rather than utilising allowable absences that would require them to pay the gap.
All this puts centres like Little Possums in a bind as their income drops but they still need to pay overheads. Schiller, who has a full-time job as an accountant and subsidises the centre from her own pocket, has decided to pay her staff for as long as possible.
I’ve got about five children coming a day. Yesterday’s JobKeeper announcement will help me, however the first payment does not come in until May and I may not be able to hold on that long.
Community health concerns
Juliette Pantaleo is the co-director of Organic Seedlings Education, a family-run childcare centre in south-west Sydney. Organic Seedlings opened in mid-2019 and is currently below 50% occupancy.
When news of COVID-19 started to circulate, Pantaleo focused on keeping staff and parents informed, such as keeping children away if they’d been overseas. “We’re a highly regulated industry anyway,” she noted.
When weekly grocery runs turned into daily visits – because stock was low – she realised changes were afoot. Within a week, they had a huge decline in attendance. Some parents were pulling children out due to schools closing and at least one family who had been exposed to a person with the virus chose to isolate.
Pantaleo’s concern is the conflicting messages she’s getting from government departments with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian telling people not to go out unnecessarily but then expecting childcare staff to turn up to work.
Our advice is ‘business as usual’. We’re just trying to stay afloat every day and get the job done.
New regulations with regard to physical distancing also apply to childcare centres, but although the Organic Seedlings’ building complies with the ratio, the guidelines are not designed with childcare in mind, she says.
Nowhere has anyone addressed what you should do when you’re putting children to sleep. And if you usually put them to sleep in your arms, what then?
The government still has the power to prevent closures
The likely scenario is that centres will liquidate and shut. But Little Possums centre director Schiller says the government has the power to prevent that by putting viability measures in place.
The uncertainty now puts the future of centre’s like these in doubt, a situation that places undue stress on directors like Schiller and Pantaleo.
I’m usually a pretty rational person,” says Pantaleo. “And I’ve hit an all-time low in terms of my stress and anxiety.
We’re all overwhelmed
Coach and trainer Sarah Moore is the director of Early Education Leadership. She recognises that the general feeling of the sector is “overwhelmed”, which is then compounded by educators being called on to be a “listening ear” to families with the same stresses and struggles.
Moore acknowledges that the relationship between carers and families is already complex.
“There are parents who are feeling indebted towards the preschools looking after their children, but then also struggling around financial aspects, needing to pull their child out.”
In addition to that, for centre directors, stakeholders also include staff.
“I’m hearing directors saying they’re having really difficult conversations with staff as well, where they’re just getting triggered. People’s stress loads are very high. And the whole uncertainty about whether they have a job tomorrow is really playing out in people’s minds – Are we still going to be here next week? The impermanence of it is stressful in itself in what is already a stressful job.”
Her advice is to practice self-leadership, a concept that centres on containing emotional Contagion.
“We need to be coming from a place of calm otherwise we’re sharing that with children and families. We need to focus on staying grounded and practicing self-care.Take breaks and hydrate, walk away if you’re feeling overwhelmed.”
She says a big issue for educators is that they tend to be people who are used to having the answers. Dealing with uncertainty means recognising that you don’t have to.
“I’ve done a couple of webinars recently with education leaders where the’re saying that they’re being asked questions they don’t know the answer to, and they feel bad.
“My advice is it’s actually okay. You don’t have all the answers because none of us do right now.”
Envisage yourself beyond the here and now
An exercise Moore recommends for educators who are feeling overwhelmed is to envisage yourself beyond the here and now.
“Think six months out, and if that’s too challenging bring it a little bit closer, maybe three months, and start envisioning your future self so that you’re creating what you want to see rather than a fear of what might happen. This makes people feel more empowered, that they actually have some control over how they’re going to shape their future.
“Often educators totally underestimate their power of influence and the impact that they create. They are doing such important job and will continue to do a really important job in how they influence children.”
Boost your team’s wellbeing practices – new online learning sessions from Sarah Moore
Leadership in Rapid Times Of Change
90-minute webinar | Thursday 2nd April, 10.30am – 12pm
We understand that in the wake of the COVID-19 global health crisis, you may find yourself in unfamiliar territory. As an Early Childhood Leader, you are being called to navigate a high level of rapid change and uncertainty.
In this webinar, Early Education Leadership, Speaker, Leadership Coach, and training facilitator Sarah Moore will share how we respond to uncertainty and some practical tips to use to navigate these uncertain times, while also maintaining our sense of wellbeing.
Find out more >
Uncertainty and Wellbeing: How Are You Coping?
90-minute webinar | Monday 6 April, 10.30am-12pm
Early childhood professionals are being called to respond to a high level of rapid change both personally and professionally. They are dealing with information for decision making, as well as shifting routines and workload priorities.
In this webinar, Early Education Leadership founder, Leadership Coach, and training facilitator Sarah Moore will share some impactful, evidence-based, and most importantly, easy-to-use approaches to empower early childhood professionals and their services with confidence to support their wellbeing and cope with the inevitable demands of uncertainty.
Find out more >