The NSW government has announced a staggered return to school in NSW starting October 25. There’s currently no guidance on when the government will recommend that all children will return to ECEC settings.

As we head towards vaccination targets and reopening dates (which some news outlets are referring to somewhat recklessly as ‘freedom day’), we need to accept that COVID is not going away. Our new ‘freedom’ will come with many new and heightened responsibilities.

We explore the latest transmission data, and how services can keep staff and children as safe as possible as children start to return to early education and care." />

Published by CELA on 20 Sep, 2021

National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) data showed that between 31 July to 19 August in NSW, there were COVID cases occurring in 91 educational settings (10 high schools, 33 primary schools, 45 ECEC services and 3 K-12 schools), taking the total number of educational settings involved in the latest outbreak in NSW to 142 at the point of reporting. (Source: NCIRS)

CELA CEO Michele Carnegie notes that we will continue to have rolling cases across Australia, and that our only way forward is to be as best prepared as we can.

COVID-19, and in particular, the Delta strain, is presenting unprecedented challenges for our sector. As we come out of lockdown and towards a new COVID normal, we will increasingly see outbreaks occur in early education settings. It’s our new reality and we need  to be prepared — for our staff, the children and families.

Delta has seen increased transmission rates in education settings, but the effects are still less severe amongst children

The NCIRS reported that between 16 June 2021 and 19 August 2021, there were 10,782 COVID-19 notifications in NSW (population 8.1 million). Of these, 2,864 (27%) were among those aged 0 to ≤18 years. 

Transmission rates in schools, ECEC services and households seen during the current Delta outbreak in NSW are 5.2 times higher than those seen throughout 2020 due to the more contagious nature of Delta.

The NCIRS report notes that:

  • There were 59 individuals (34 students [57.6%] and 25 staff members [42.3%]) from 51 educational settings (19 schools and 32 ECEC services) confirmed as primary COVID-19 cases who had an opportunity to transmit COVID to others in their school or ECEC service.
  • 106 secondary cases (69 students and 37 staff members) occurred in 19 of the 51 educational settings (37%; 3 primary schools and 16 ECEC services), resulting in a secondary attack rate of 4.7%. 

Of particular note is that the highest transmission rate occurred in ECEC services between staff members (16.9%). The report also showed that tertiary household cases resulting from a case infected at a school or ECEC was very high (transmission occurred in 76 out of 96 households), but this is not unique to an education setting.

In NSW's coronavirus press conference, infectious diseases specialist Professor Kristine McCartney said transmission between children – while possible – remained very low.

What we saw was that the highest rate of spread was actually amongst unvaccinated adult staff and particularly unvaccinated adult staff at the time of the report in childcare centres," Professor McCartney said. "The spread of virus also occurred from adults to children but the spread between children themselves was very low. (Source: 9 News)

A comforting fact is that the majority of children had asymptomatic or mild infection. 

“The evidence shows, to the best of our knowledge to date, COVID-19 – even with Delta – remains a mild illness for children,” notes Royal Australasian College of Physicians president-elect and paediatrician Dr Jacqueline Small in The Sydney Morning Herald

Australian data from January 1 to August 1 this year shows that 2.5% of children aged up to nine and 2.9% of children and teenagers aged 10-19 who contracted COVID were hospitalised. This is compared to 7.7% of young adults aged 20-29, with the rates continuing to increase with age. (Source: NCIRS)

Mitigating the spread - what measures need to be taken in ECEC settings

When COVID started to spread in Australia in early 2020, an emphasis was placed on social distancing and hygiene measures. While these are still important tools, they are no longer enough, or top of the list, when mitigating against the more contagious Delta variant. 

The model Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws require you to take care of the health, safety and welfare of your workers, including yourself and other staff, contractors and volunteers, and others (clients, customers, visitors) at your workplace. This includes minimising the risk of exposure to COVID-19 ‘as far as is reasonably practicable. (Source: Safe Work Australia)

Safe practices for workplaces such as ECEC now include a raft of measures including: 

Vaccination

By vaccinating, you are protecting yourself and others you come into contact with from the effects of severe COVID-19. ECEC staff across the state are required to have received two doses of COVID-19 vaccination by 8 November 2021 (staff who live or work in one of the local areas of concern must have had their first vaccination dose by 19 September to return to work, or carry evidence of their vaccination booking or contraindication medical form).

An updated Public Health Order, reflecting mandatory vaccination for ECEC is expected soon (check for updates and more information about vaccination on the NSW Department of Education website). 

The NCIRS provides a raft of answers to frequently asked questions about vaccination here - this page may help staff to navigate any questions or concerns they may have. 

Masks

The main benefit of wearing a mask is to protect others. If the person wearing the mask is unknowingly infected, wearing a mask will reduce the chances of them passing the virus on to others. 

Masks are required indoors and outdoors in Early Childhood Education and Care settings across NSW.

The NSW Department of Education provides clear guidelines around mask wearing including that exemptions for wearing masks for staff in ECEC apply:

  • where a child is deaf or hard of hearing; or
  • the clear enunciation or visibility of the educator’s mouth is essential.

‘Where an exemption for wearing a mask applies, physical distancing should be practiced where possible as another measure to limit COVID-19 transmission.

Masks should also be worn by staff when engaging with other adults, such as during pick-up and drop-off, and in administrative areas of the service, including staff rooms.

All parents dropping off or picking up children should be asked to wear masks.’
(Source: NSW Department of Education)

This article from ABC Kids includes some helpful ideas for navigating wearing masks in ECEC settings.

Hygiene

The NSW Department of Education recommends that services should continue to ensure strong hygiene practices including: 

  • Clean your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
  • Sneeze or cough into your elbow or a tissue - consider placing tissues in every room at your service for staff and children to use.
  • Place used tissues straight into a bin.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Don’t share food or drink.

(Source: NSW Department of Education)

QR codes

QR codes are mandatory at all workplaces. They should be displayed in multiple, prominent places including at the entrance in order to give people the best opportunity to check in easily, while social distancing. 

Safe pick up and drop off procedures

Ensure that you have a written procedure for pick up and drop off which minimises contact between staff and families, and reduces the number of parents and carers entering the service.

Limiting visitors

Only essential visitors should be allowed at your services.

Limiting excursions

Excursions are not recommended at this time.

Ventilation

Ventilation is an important part of our protective ‘arsenal’ that hasn’t received a lot of air time to date. We believe it should be on every service’s COVID safe plan. 

Why is ventilation important? 

  • We know that COVID-19 is airborne - The World Health Organization  has recognised SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is airborne. The evidence for aerosol transmission is now enough for the Australian Infection Control Expert Group (ICEG), which advises the federal government, to have recently amended its earlier advice that COVID-19 was only spread by contact and droplets. 
  • The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads more readily indoors than outdoors - Evidence has also shown that viral particles spread between people more readily indoors than outdoors. 

    The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that: ‘Indoors, the concentration of viral particles is often higher than outdoors, where even a light wind can rapidly reduce concentrations. When indoors, ventilation mitigation strategies can help reduce viral particle concentration. The lower the concentration, the less likely viral particles can be inhaled into the lungs (potentially lowering the inhaled dose); contact eyes, nose, and mouth; or fall out of the air to accumulate on surfaces. Protective ventilation practices and interventions can reduce the airborne concentrations and reduce the overall viral dose to occupants.’ (Source: CDC)


Researchers from the University of Sydney argue that ventilation in schools must be addressed, suggesting that “schools are super-spreader events waiting to happen”. They suggest that schools access a CO2 meter to measure the amount of CO2 in a room — 600ppm (parts per million) is best practice, and anything higher than that means poor ventilation and greater risk of transmission. Counter-intuitively, they found that older buildings with leaky windows and high ceilings were better on ventilation than newer, mechanically ventilated buildings . The researchers also suggest opening windows and doors as much as possible and acquiring an air purifier, but it would need to be “high efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA)” and appropriate to the size of the room. 

In an ECEC setting, it may be the case that internal rooms are no longer suitable for children and staff, necessitating reconfiguration of services and potential reduction in the number of children who can attend. This could present viability and cost issues. 

What ECEC services can do about improving ventilation

To help reduce the risk, it is important to take steps to improve ventilation in your centre so that any infectious particles that may be present in the air are more quickly removed.

The NSW Department of Education recommends the following actions: 

  • Use outdoor settings wherever possible. In most cases, outdoor settings have better natural airflow than indoor areas.
  • Use large, well-ventilated indoor spaces. If you must use an indoor space, avoid crowded or noisy indoor spaces as: a crowd generates more droplets and aerosolised particles and noisy spaces encourage people to shout or talk loudly, increasing the generation of aerosolised particles, and therefore the risk of transmission of COVID-19.
     

Indoor ventilation can be most easily improved by opening doors and windows. Other ways to safely improve ventilation include to:

  • Avoid directing fans towards children’s faces, aim them continuously towards the ceiling or floor.
  • Limit oscillation and turbulence of fans.
  • Regularly inspect, maintain and clean heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
  • Avoid using only recirculated air in HVAC systems, and increase the outside air intake.
  • Consider disabling ventilation controls with automated settings that reduce air supply based on temperature or occupancy.
  • Ensure exhaust fans are operational if in place. 
     

If you can’t modify the ventilation or choose an outdoor location you could consider:

  • Reducing the number of people in an indoor space at any one time by splitting children into groups and encouraging them to use different areas around the centre.
  • Reducing the length of time that children spend indoors all together .

Source: NSW Department of Education

We continue to advocate best practice in the interest of children and educators as information emerges on this.

Meeting Children’s needs

Transition to school

CELA early education specialist Kate Damo says the early learning milestones that preschoolers are likely to have missed are the social and emotional skills that form the pre-academic foundation. These skills include listening to others, taking turns, conversational skills, following directions, and emotional self-regulation.
 
The biggest impacts, however, are likely to be felt by children of families for whom English is a second language, and those with additional needs, for example children on the autism spectrum. Those groups benefit greatly from the support of an early education and care environment, and access to specialist educators, and it stands to reason that time out of ECEC may result in children losing that support.
 
Also be aware that children may express fear about the environment outside the house. The presence of COVID-19 and the response by governments to lock down, with corresponding caution taken by many families and news reports, have not gone unnoticed by children.

How you can help:

  • Focus on fundamental skills such as language and building independence. 
  • Set a routine — routine gives children structure and sets up expectations for the school day, starting with wake-up time and getting ready for school followed by lessons, play and eating periods.
  • Contact your local schools, what practices are they establishing to support children’s transitions?
  • Consider what you can do to work with schools in a COVID safe manner to support children’s transitions.
  • How will the period of lockdown impact your transition to school statements? Consider the support you can suggest to school’s to be better prepared for the children you currently provide education and care to.
     

Read more about supporting transition to school after lockdown in our recent Amplify article. 

Remote education

All services should continue to offer remote education to those children enrolled but not physically attending the service.

Your program

Consider your program and the environment you prepare to welcome children back:

  • Is it set up to support reestablishment of relationships and connections?
  • Are educators prepared to spend more time reconnecting with children?
  • Does the routine need to be reconsidered to ensure staff are available and ready for children as they arrive and settle back in?

Additional support

Consider appropriate referrals for families, including The Early Childhood Approach through NDIS.

Meeting educator needs

Ensure you are ready to provide educators with additional support as children adjust to returning to the service. 

Discuss staff expectations of children and how these may need to be revised as children reconnect with the service. 

Discuss your expectations of staff, including:

Their documentation requirements – what can be done to change these expectations as educators need to spend additional time reconnecting with children? 

The service’s Covid safe plan, in particular the need for staff to: 

  • Practice good hygiene 
  • Stay home if sick 
  • Get tested if they have cold or flu like symptoms
     

Beyond Blue recommend the following: 

  • Maintain regular catchups with your team 
  • Look out for signs of struggle 
  • Set up regular 1:1 meetings with staff you’re concerned about 
  • Provide support both in and beyond the workplace 
  • Keep an eye on your own mental health
     

The Department of Health recommend that employers: 

  • Consult workers about the steps they intend to take to prevent the spread of COVID-19 implement measures for physical distancing like rearranging furniture to spread people out or limiting the number of people in communal staff areas at any one time.
  • Remind workers to practise good hygiene and provide hygiene facilities. 
  • Require workers to stay home when sick.
  • Clean the workplace regularly and thoroughly. 
  • Make a plan for what they will do if there is COVID-19 in the workplace.


It’s also vital to have a communications plan for families, educators and staff so that you can make sure everyone is aware of current and updated COVID related information. 

We are entering uncharted territory, so planning is vital

As we head towards ‘freedom day’ (a term that vastly distorts the reality of what the reality of living with and managing the pandemic will be like), our sector will need to employ every strategy to keep staff, children and families safe. 

You are not alone, CELA will continue to be here to help members to navigate through the challenges. 

“Every day since the start of the current COVID outbreak, the CELA team has been communicating directly with members to understand how they are being affected. The information we gather shapes our CEO’s advocacy at State and Federal levels,” says CELA CEO Michele Carnegie. 

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.

 

New member resource: What to consider if your LGA goes into lockdown

Our new member resource is a set-by-step guide detailing what you need to do if your LGA goes into lockdown, including a sample letter for communicating with families. You will need to be logged in to download it. 

DOWNLOAD RESOURCE

CELA is also preparing a member-only roadmap wich will give you a clear and concise path to help you to navigate through resposibilities out of lockdown. You will receive this via email and in the member hub as soon as it is ready. 

Find out about CELA membership

Being a CELA member means you'll never have to face a challenge alone. Members gain access to a wealth of knowledge and inspiration through our 1800 support line, publications and resources, and receive discounts on training, events and consultancy. Through our advocacy we provide a vital line of communication to government, ensuring that your voices are heard.

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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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