We speak to members who have been affected by COVID closures on a regular basis in order to help advise them of the best sources of information for navigating operational and financial challenges.
Being prepared in times of uncertainty can reduce fear and anxiety, build resilience, and lead to a faster recovery. Below we describe an example from one of our members about how COVID-19 impacted their service and what the experience can teach you to prepare for a COVID-19 case or close contact at your service.
Note: Not all services connected to a positive COVID-19 case need to close fully, and not for the full two weeks. These decisions are handled by NSW Health on a case-by-case basis, based on its assessment of the risk of COVID-19 transmission to others at the service and beyond.
This CCS funded service is small, running only two groups — Group A and a Group B.
One child who attends the Group A developed COVID-19 symptoms and upon testing was found to be positive. The service Director contacted the NSW Department of Education and NSW Health as per the guidance provided on the NSW Department of Education website (if you haven’t already, make sure you have a print-out of the NSW Department of Education’s flowchart and CELA’s ‘Re-evaluating COVID-19 Priorities‘ displayed or filed somewhere handy).
NSW Health deemed the children in Group A to be close contacts and as a result were directed to get tested and isolate for two weeks. The educators, given they are all fully vaccinated, needed to get tested, self-isolate for seven days and not attend work or other high-risk settings for another seven days, as per NSW Health advice. These educators accessed their sick leave for their self-isolation period. If they hadn’t had any sick leave available, they could have applied for a Pandemic Leave lump sum payment of $1,500 from Services Australia to cover lost earnings over their fortnight of isolation.
Fortunately, for this service, the educational teams for Groups A and B are different, so the self-isolation requirements did not affect the ability to have adequate staff for Group B.
The service was not directed to close, meaning that Group B could still proceed. However, many families from this group wanted to keep their child at home, given COVID-19 was active in their community. Only four children attended.
Under current Commonwealth provisions, the service has the following options available to it:
Waive the gap fee for families in Group A (given children cannot attend for two weeks)
Continue to charge families fees across the board – and not waive gap fees for families in Group A
Temporarily close the service and not receive any gap fees nor any CCS funding.
The NSW Department of Education assists impacted services to identify which options are best suited to their circumstances, however the decision on whether to opt in to waiving the gap fee is a business decision for individual services.
For individual services impacted by COVID-19, with anxious parents and educators, making such business decisions on the fly is extremely stressful. There is a lot of pressure on services to waive the gap fee, which, while helpful for both families and services, nonetheless impacts on viability as CCS income often does not cover fixed costs. The Commonwealth Business Continuity payments which were offered during the height of the pandemic this year for those with less than 50 per cent of children attending were a lifeline for many services, but are not currently available.
The educators impacted by the positive COVID-19 case needed to get tested and isolate for seven days, and not attend work for the following seven. These staff, if they had sick leave available, will have had to use two weeks’ leave for this time. If they had no leave available, they could apply for the Commonwealth Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment of $1,500 per fortnight. The NSW Test and Isolate Payment of $320 is also available for staff who develop symptoms and need to test and isolate. Both of these payments have other eligibility requirements which must be met.
Being COVID prepared
Given 14 per cent of education and care services in NSW have been impacted by COVID-19 to date, and given children aged 0-4 cannot be vaccinated, it is reasonable to expect that it’s not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ COVID-19 will impact your service.
Therefore it is worthwhile to plan how a closure or partial closure of your service will impact your service, your team, and your bottom line.
Start with the numbers
Model how much income you will receive via CCS funding if you waive the gap fee for a room/session or the entire service against your fixed and variable costs per day. Knowing that these sorts of closures may occur several times, plan to avoid a loss. This will mean that when you have a case, you’ll know what your position is regarding charging families fees.
Communicate with families
If families know in advance how it will work at your service if there is a case, they will be more likely to be understanding. In times of stress, such as when a case is announced, they will have less head-space available to understand that their child’s service still has fixed over-heads and that government assistance does not cover these.
Know how much sick leave your team has, and what their options are
Check that staff sick leave entitlements are up to date and recorded appropriately. Ensure staff with low low levels of leave entitlements are aware of additional income options available to them, such as the Commonweath COVID-19 Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment if they need to isolate or care for a family member at home or the NSW Test and Isolate payment if they develop COVID-19 symptoms and need to get tested. Fair Work provides information about what employees’ options are if they need to self-isolate.
Know what you will do if staff need to self-isolate — can you run A and B teams to minimise whole-of-service disruption? Acknowledging that during our current crisis in the workforce, many services do not have access to casuals to manage disruptions.
At CELA, we have supported services in negotiating with their community-based committees to cover staff leave and/or enable them to work from home on other service-related matters while isolating for extended periods of time.
CELA is advocating for our members
CELA remains concerned that the supports available to early childhood education and care services as we move to ‘living with Delta’ are inadequate; we are pushing for improved financial supports for impacted services; defining the role for rapid antigen testing and investment in the ECEC workforce to address urgent shortages.
If you have an experience or perspective that can support the above, or you have another issue you would like us to advocate for, please contact CEO Michele Carnegie at firstname.lastname@example.org .
5 CELA resources members should download today
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COVID-19 Action Plan
COVID-19 Risk Assessment Tool
COVID Vaccination Status Log
COVID-19 Safe Drop-off List
COVID-19 Communicating with Families
VIEW ALL CELA RESOURCES