Published by CELA on 6 Sep, 2021

The total number of COVID-19 cases in far western NSW has now climbed to triple digits with most of those in Wilcannia, where motor homes have had to be brought in to house infected community members who have no way to isolate at home. Meanwhile, the number of cases in western NSW is at 788, with the majority in Dubbo, where 29 cases were recorded yesterday.

As part of our advocacy and support efforts, our team has been connecting with members in affected communities through phone and email to find out what they need from government, while linking them to CELA’s member news and COVID resources as well as discussing how we can support them.

From my conversations it appears that most ECEC professionals in the western region are finding it really, really challenging,” says CELA regional early education specialist Narelle Myers. “I’m especially concerned for those whose roles were already challenged in their isolated and vulnerable communities, and who are now being pushed to breaking point both financially, emotionally and physically.

Even before the pandemic it was much harder to access health services in country areas; the more rural and remote you live the scarcer the medical and health services available. This situation also puts residents at risk for serious health complications associated with the COVID-19 virus and long COVID.

As cases within the community, and even more alarmingly amongst children rise, Narelle says that fear and anxiety are creeping in. Educators out west are looking for clear guidance and support to keep their families, children, and staff safe, but messages are muddy and support is coming via a slow trickle.

There is an urgent need for additional government funding and support — support to manage the potential spread of the virus through services, and to counter the financial and mental health impacts of prolonged lockdowns.

Families are under strain, but initial frustration has turned to community support

Due to conflicting information from the media, ECEC staff in the Dubbo area were initially met with anger when families were encouraged to keep children home from early education and care. Now that communication is clearer and the seriousness of the situation is evident, families are much more supportive and in many cases are choosing to keep children at home. 

Scars from last year’s lockdown are still raw, mental health and wellbeing is being challenged

When the current lockdown was announced, a wave of stress and foreboding ran through ECEC leaders in the area. Directors have suggested that additional sick and mental health leave is needed.

Some of the Directors I have spoken with have still not recovered from last year,” says Narelle. “Many of the smaller services feel like they have been forgotten about. One Director has been diagnosed with chronic fatigue, while others struggle with a continuing feeling of overwhelm and isolation. The uncertainty and anxiety is starting to reduce as they are learning to adjust to situations as they happen, and as change becomes somewhat of a new normal.

Struggling to stay above water due to finance and staffing issues

We all know that staffing is a major challenge for the entire sector, but staffing in regional and remote areas was already stretched to breaking point before the pandemic. The financial struggles of last year saw many services lose precious team members who could not be easily replaced, and for many it has taken months and months to rebuild teams. If staff have to be laid off and trust is lost, they will need to look for work in other sectors and our sector will lose them forever. 

Many team members work part time and have little sick or holiday leave up their sleeves. Staff who were identified early in the outbreak as close contacts of COVID cases had to use up a lot of their leave while waiting days for test results to come back. 

For many areas, test results are taking between five to seven days to be returned,” says CELA CEO Michele Carnegie. “And while educators are isolating, they are using precious leave provisions if working from home is not possible or offered by their employee. The Test and Isolate payments are only available to people who work in one of the LGAs of concern and should be extended to regional NSW and take into account longer testing turnaround times.
Lengthy testing turnaround times have a big impact on services. Depending on the circumstances, services have closed while multiple staff members have been waiting on test results. Service closure has a big impact in small country towns where care is being given to the children of essential workers. It can immobilise the workforce supporting COVID such as nurses, teachers, police and community workers.

How the Bourke community is coming together to fight COVID

While Dubbo is the epicentre of the outbreak, another town of concern is Bourke, where 35 new cases were recorded last week. Bourke is located approximately 800km north west of Sydney with a population of just over 2,600 people, of which 32% are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background.

Bourke & District Children’s Services (BDCS) run a childcare centre, preschool, mobile children’s service and OOSH. The child care centre usually caters for 53 children, while the preschool usually has 76 children in attendance. As of last week, only a handful of children are in attendance, which General Manager Prue Ritchie puts down to a sign of community strength. 

Families feel confident to keep their children at home and understand the need to do this in order to protect the community. We have encouraged families to keep their children at home, but have made sure that we are doing everything we can to connect with children and families who aren’t attending, particularly where families have a positive covid case at home where they are having to isolate.

'Proud of our connection' with families and community

Connecting with families and children includes regular opportunities for learning and interaction via Zoom, phone calls to parents, carers and children, and home learning packs. The team have also managed to keep the toy library running, after making COVID-safe provisions including a more rigorous cleaning regime and a rotation roster. 

A preschool child receives a remote learning delivery from BDCS

“I’m really proud of our team in the way that they have connected with families individually. We are also looking at where we can work with the wider community to help in areas such as dropping off provisions and care packs. Additional training has been given to members of the BDCS in how to safely implement contactless drop offs for food and home learning packages so that we can provide this additional support in a COVID safe way. One of our maintenance staff has been redeployed as a driver to help drop off food packs.”

Taking tea with a friend from the BDCS toy library

Keeping staff motivated and resetting expectations - ‘everyone copes differently’

The service has 37 staff in total. Prue and the leadership team worked incredibly hard to rebuild the team of educators after losing many due to financial issues in last year’s lock down. 

“Everyone is working from home for at least a couple of days on rotation,” shares Prue. “ On days off they are doing lots of study and professional development. We’ve been catching up regularly on zoom in order to check in on mental health and keep connections going. We have had to buy a lot of laptops and dongles to keep people connected.”

Prue says that the key to wellbeing has been acknowledging that everyone is going to cope differently and that one thing doesn’t work for everyone. She’s been focusing on resetting people’s expectations on what can feasibly be done while dealing with the situation at hand. 

We’ve worked very hard since the last lock down to build our staff up again. We all know what a crisis point the workforce is at. My biggest tip is do not let your people go and make sure you look after the wellbeing of your staff because when this changes and we all need our people back we don’t want to be in a position where all the great staff have exited the sector. Make the most of learning and development opportunities and ensure that communication channels are open.

The number of staff meetings have increased, via Zoom of course, and Prue is making sure that there are opportunities to keep the meetings fun and lighthearted. On Monday they had a pink themed dress up, whle this morning's meeting featured ‘race day’ headwear. 

The BDCS team in 'race day' headwear

“We try to keep the conversation casual. It’s an opportunity to see everyone and for leaders to check in and see staff and make sure support is given.”
 
At the moment Prue and the team’s focus has been focused on operational issues such as ironing out ‘all the little things you haven’t thought about’ and keeping a connection and sense of motivation and achievement, while remaining flexible and responsive. They are also updating their COVID action plan on a regular basis, to allow for the changing situation and challenges. 

Support for vaccinations and surveillance testing

Prue says that they haven’t had a lot of push back on the requirement for vaccinations. 

“People generally understand the urgency in a community that is very small and has a relatively high caseload. Most of us understand the imperative and the need to protect vulnerable people.”

While COVID surveillance testing is not mandated, the BDCS team agreed on it openly as a way to protect the children who are still attending. Each staff member is tested around once a week, to ensure that nobody is unwittingly bringing the virus into the centre. 

Try to focus on the positives, and reach out when you need to

“There are lots of people out there who are going through the same challenges,” shares Prue. “There’s lots of support available when you know where to look. Tap into your support networks whether that be CELA, a colleague or a Director in a neighboring town. They will have the same concerns and may be able to offer a new perspective.

“We’re trying to focus on any positive things that could come from this situation. That includes all the training that’s happening, the increase in communications through daily team meetings and the ability to focus on mentoring for our trainees. One final recommendation I’d give, is to make sure you’ve got your cleaning quotes handy and have contacts for at least two organisations that you could utilise in case you are required to clean due to a case at your service. That's one thing you don’t want to have to worry about at the last minute.”

_______________________
A message from our CEO

As a peak body and respected advocate for the early years sector, we are seeing the challenges for both our members and government officials. The challenges of Delta are immense, and we understand that all parties are working incredibly hard to keep on top of it.  

There is a need for government intervention to support services with the high costs associated with recruitment, housing and induction including upskilling of new staff members, so that quality early education can continue. Our small community providers also need access to professional industrial relations advice to guide them if educators choose to not be vaccinated.

Through member phone calls and subsequent data collation, we have identified four key challenges facing our sector: viability, staff safety, attendance, and workforce. 

Viability  

Viability for our members is a challenge even without a pandemic. We know that our members tend to pay their staff above award — for many of our community and stand-alone members, around 80 per cent of expenditure is allocated to staffing. 

Interpreting complex rules and analysing which grants or funding models are most beneficial to the bottom line is not the reason most of our members deliver education and care. We believe that simpler supports should be available for our members during this crisis. 

Staff safety 

CELA is concerned for the safety of the early education and care workforce. We have been closely monitoring developments in this area. We know from our members that many are confident in their processes for maintaining hygiene and minimising the risk of spreading infection. However, educators are increasingly concerned about their safety as the number of cases in the community, and in ECEC services, continues to increase. 

CELA has been advocating for early education staff to be prioritised for vaccination, and we are relieved that this has now been facilitated. We also believe staff should have the option to choose which vaccine is suitable for them based on medical advice and that they should be supported by employees to take time off from service delivery to access vaccinations. 

As areas come out of lockdown we must turn our attention to ventilation. Outdoor programs and open windows will not sustain services when summer hits high temperatures. We urgently seek advice from government on suitable air conditioning, filtration and air purification, so as services implement what is required to operate safely with Delta circulating in communities. This needs to be tied to suitable funding to assist our community providers in implementing these measures.

Clarity on attendance

At this time, NSW Health is strongly urging the community to keep their children at home to reduce the risk of infection and transmission of COVID-19 in ECEC across NSW, unless they need to be at an ECEC."

We know that this wording leaves ambiguity about attendance and places the onus on deciding whether a child should attend with service Directors and parents. In a time of such uncertainty, strong government guidance based on expert health advice is needed.  

Workforce

A recent workforce survey conducted by CELA during June/July in partnership with Early Learning Association Australia and Community Child Care, found that 49 per cent of services have experienced an increase in staff turnover since the pandemic began.  

The workforce already has a high attrition rate compared with other sectors — a recent survey conducted by the United Workers Union found that 37 per cent of educators do not intend to stay in the sector long term, and of those, 74 per cent intend to leave within the next three years. Of those who plan to stay long-term, 46 per cent think about leaving ‘some’ or ‘all’ of the time. 

 

CELA will continue to advocate for our sector. We appreciate the regular and open communication we have with our members about issues, challenges, as well as golden moments of joy and thank you for the critical work you are doing in supporting children’s learning and development, whether face to face, or at home, in one of the most historically challenging periods in recent memory in our country. 

Michele Carnegie, CELA CEO

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COVID member news and advocacy

About CELA

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.

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