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'It's been a long 16 weeks': Anticipation tinged with nerves as creches prepare to re-open

Providers say they’ve done everything they can to make things seem normal for children.

Image: Shutterstock

AS CHILDCARE FACILITIES re-open after more than three months of closure due to Covid-19 restrictions, the excitement is tinged with nervousness for everyone involved.

Earlier this week representatives warned the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that longer-term support will be needed to ensure the survival of the sector.

But in the short-term, many providers have managed to put in place the structures and protocols needed to open their doors tomorrow, with some small changes to the way they do things.

The majority of childcare facilities will be operating at reduced capacity as not all parents want or need to send their children back right now. Many of these creches closed for the summer anyway or offered summer camps for smaller numbers. This gives operators time before September when numbers will increase to see how the new systems and protocols work.

Marian Quinn, chairperson of the Association of Childhood Professionals said hand-washing was already happening at centres before the Covid-19 crisis so it will not be new to the children.

Depending on the facility, drop-off times may be staggered for different groups or the number of handover points may be increased to reduce interaction between groups of children and parents.

“Some services will have changed their reception space or created a new space where handover can happen. Before this, the parents would have come into the room to put away the child’s bag and coat and settle them in,” she said.

“That’s not advised now, but obviously if there is a child who is upset or needs extra support there will be a protocol where the parents can stay longer, maybe in a different space with the child until they settle.

You have to remember that the children have been at home for three and a half months with their parents and it will be a transition for them to come back. They’ll also need support to let them know it’s okay for them to be out and mixing with their friends again, as they’ve been told for three months now that they can’t see their friends or their grandparents.

How will it work? 

The ‘play pod’ system will work within the existing ratios of children to adults in the facilities and for many it will mean business as usual. However some facilities have had to make small changes to their set-up to facilitate the new system.

In the case of babies aged under one year, the ratio is two adults to six children – and this is now the maximum pod size for this age group. Before the Covid-19 crisis, some creches would have had larger numbers of children in the room, with the appropriate number of additional staff.

“In these cases, they might put a bookshelf down the middle of the room and have six children and two adults on one side and three children with one adult on the other side, just so they can’t toddle over to the other side,” Quinn explained.

In some places you have to walk through one play room to get to another so that might be a challenge for providers. On Monday they’ll have reduced capacity so it may not be an issue for now but as more children start to come back they might have to put up a partition to create a small corridor. 

‘My stomach is churning’

Louise Kilbane is managing director of Lillipop Lane Creche and has two facilities – one in Mayo and one in Sligo – with both due to re-open tomorrow.

“We’re nervous but excited, we’re really looking forward to seeing the children and their families again,” she told TheJournal.ie.

“This business is part of our family’s life, I run it and my husband supports me, our children are here and it’s been a long 16 weeks of something being taken away from us suddenly.”

She said the biggest change in the day-to-day at her creches from Monday will be that parents will not be able to come into the rooms with their children.

We pride ourselves on that relationship with parents and that involves them being able to drop their children in the morning and have a chat with us. We’d ask them how they are, maybe identify it hasn’t been a great morning and ask them if they are okay – parents value that. It’s alien for us not to be able to stand and chat with them. And normally they might sit on the floor to play with the child for a few minutes, it seems so strange that they can’t don that anymore. 

Both of Kilbane’s creches are in rural settings, which she said means they have large gardens and outdoor areas. These have been the focus of her work in recent weeks, creating separate spaces so allow different pods to be outside at the same time but not mixing.

“Traditionally we’d have had age groups mixing, particularly with siblings who are in the service so they’d have been able to see each other and play together outside,” she said.

“We’ve spent time on the garden to make that even if they’re not in the same space they can still see each other – it’s important they are able to do that.”

The new outdoor spaces will also be used as drop-off points for younger children, allowing the parents to stay for a short period while they settle in and play. 

“It’s been 16 weeks and for the younger children they may only have a vague recollection of us so it’s harder for them to settle back in,” Kilbane said. “The children can play in the garden and the parents will be able to see they’re happy in that space before they head off.”

Furniture and displays in the corridors have been removed to make cleaning easier, coat hooks have been moved inside the rooms and the number of drop-off points has been increased to minimise interactions. There is also new sink outside for handwashing and sanitiser stations have been installed.

“My stomach is churning thinking about whether I’ve done enough. I know in my heart I have but I still have that worry,” she said.

“Speaking to parents over the last couple of weeks they can’t wait to come back and the children are very excited. And we really can’t wait to see them.

“I think the Covid crisis really highlighted the importance of the sector and highlighted the funding problems. I know Early Childhood Ireland told the [Oireachtas] committee this week that we need supports going forward so I hope the next government – whoever that is – listens to that because we really are a vital part of our communities.”

Summer camp

Lee Herlihy, owner of Horizons Montessori in Cork, will be reopening on 6 July for the annual summer camp.

The facility is generally closes at the end of June, with a summer camp in July before closing for August and she said she had considered waiting until September to reopen to give herself and her staff more time to prepare. When she asked parents about interested in the summer camp, she said it was booked out within 24 hours.

“We’ve reduced our number so we have one single pod – generally we would have 33 children so we’ll have a group of 22 instead. We had children who were finishing their second year with us and that ended abruptly so this gives them a few more weeks to finish up and we can say goodbye to them and the families properly.

“We’ve made a lot of changes to our outdoor area, so we’ve put in a big sandpit and a covered area for parents to shelter under when they drop the children off. We’ve made sure it’s easy for people to social distance in that space too.”

There will be staggered starts with half of the group starting at 9.15am and the other half at 9.30am.

A new sink has been installed in the outdoor area so children can wash their hands before they enter the building. The fact the sink is outside means parents can help the children as a way of settling them in and they can also wash their own hands.

When the Montessori opens back up for a larger number of children in September, Herlihy said they will be split into groups of 11 in three different rooms. 

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“We’ll rotate the pods between the rooms so the children can experience each of the environments as each room has a different sort of theme – one is more science and maths based for example. Rather than confine them to limited materials we want to make sure they can all experience all of the areas,” she said.

The new protocols mean facilities have to have different sets of toys for different groups. Capital grants have assisted with the funding for this and Herlihy said it will not be a big change.

We run two sessions – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. When it comes to the smaller construction toys for developing motor skills, you can’t really clean every single small crevice in them every time it’s used. We’re doubling up on this and they’ll be in colour-coded boxes for the different groups. That takes the pressure off the staff too because they already have more cleaning to do than usual.

“We’re conscious with the children that this is their space so the policies and procedures and the extra cleaning is really all behind the scenes. Our goal is that they’re not phased or worried when they come back and that they don’t see stressed adults, that they see happy relaxed adults.”

‘Profoundly stressful’

As the individual providers get on with business, the organisations representing the sector are pushing for supports, reminding the government that the sector was already in trouble before the Covid-19 crisis.

Speaking to the Oireachtas committee on Tuesday, Teresa Heeney of Early Childhood Ireland (ECI) said the current uncertainty “is having a profoundly stressful impact on providers”. 

She said supports during the lockdown were welcome, but pointed out that the bespoke wage subsidy scheme and the reopening package for providers were “a tacit acceptance of the precariousness of the sector”. 

“The issues of staff recruitment and retention and settings viability have not gone away and have been, if anything, exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis.”

Our colleagues at Noteworthy are proposing to investigate how a new childcare system can be built in post-pandemic Ireland. See how you can support this project here>

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