Social distancing is one of the key measures currently being utilised to contribute to Australia's ability to severely limit transmission of COVID-19.
The topic of social distancing in an early education setting has led to heated discussion and incredulity, as educators question how it can be possible to enforce such measures in their centres. There has also been confusion around which measures apply to early education.
We asked CELA member and centre director, Jeni Hind, how social distancing is being implemented at her service, and how it has impacted on the staff and children.
Jeni Hind, long time CELA family member and director of Miranda kindergarten in Sydney's south writes:
Applying new rules within a challenging context
I have many staff members who are anxious and fearful of coronavirus. We agree that social distancing is impossible for children in an early childhood setting and not appropriate for their emotional and social development.
The current rules on social distancing for schools (there are no specific guidelines for early education) can be found on the Australian Department of Health website as follows:
To reduce the spread of germs in schools :
- If your child is sick, do not send them to school (or childcare)
- Sanitise hands when entering school and at regular intervals
- Defer activities that lead to mixing between classes and years
- Avoid queuing and consider cancelling school assemblies
- Promote a regular handwashing schedule
- Clean and disinfect high touch surfaces regularly
- Conduct lessons outdoors where possible
- Consider opening windows and adjusting conditioning for more ventilation
- Promote the strictest hygiene among food preparation (canteen) staff and their close contacts
It is impossible to support and nurture young children without touching them or letting them be close to each other. However, organising the environment to limit children playing close to one another and consciously thinking about our behaviour can assist in implementing the social distancing rules.
It is difficult even for adults to change habits such as shaking hands or hugging people for their birthday. Awareness and consciously changing habits is vital at the moment, and I've found that lots of conversations, reminders and humour works for me.
The purpose of social distancing is to mitigate airborne viruses from reaching another person. What is vital for us is teaching children and educating parents about how a virus spreads in an age-appropriate way.
Educating adults and limiting contact
The approach to social distancing that we have implemented in our service is about limiting how much contact adults have with others, especially the grandparents who are most vulnerable to this virus. I'm thinking through how we can alter the routine so that parents are not gathering at the same time and not touching surfaces such as door handles, pens at sign-on, fridge doors etc and how we can ensure these surfaces are cleaned.
I've been ensuring I greet parents at the door so they don't have to touch door hands/keypads. I remind them of why I'm doing this and reinforce the new procedures we have in place, such as encouraging the use of hand sanitiser when entering and leaving the centre, when signing on/out and after using tissues.
We have had small team meetings in larger spaces with chairs pulled 2m apart and are now moving to use Zoom or Office Teams for online meetings. We still allow parents to come into the centre to drop off and collect, as they naturally arrive at staggered times.
We have posted up visuals of correct handwashing procedures at the entrance and near sign on to remind parents, along with information about how we are managing COVID-19.
Adjusting routines for children
For children, we have adjusted our routine and moved outside for most of the day because they are less likely to be in contact with each other. We limit group times to a maximum of 10 children per group and we place spots on the floor to spread children apart from each other.
Transition times are a challenge. As children are no longer lining up they take longer and supervision can be an issue when children are moving from one area to another. There is a lot of communication between educators and children and constant reminders about space and ‘keeping hands to ourselves’. We have regular conversations about washing germs away and how and why we avoid sharing our germs.
It is very difficult to keep children apart when they are playing, so we have been separating play areas and limiting resources/chairs at the table so only two children play together instead of more.
We have moved tabletop activities outside and utilising indoor/outdoor play when possible with supervision. We have been using several small mats outside for children at mealtimes instead of several children on a large mat and have rostered the sandpit so that small groups of children play in there at any one time.
I've heard of centres not allowing older siblings into the centre, however, this is too difficult for us as it creates a supervision issue for primary aged children near a very busy road. Informing parents that just one carer can collect children maybe my next procedure.
Children are very quick learners and are great at sharing what they have learned with their families it is pester power for good. I saw a two-year-old yell at his grandfather to use hand sanitiser at our front door this afternoon, I'm sure they will start talking about social distance soon too.
Useful links from Jeni
Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.