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'Play-pods' of up to 12 children to be introduced in creches as they reopen from 29 June

These services will first be made available to children of essential workers and those experiencing poverty or welfare issues.

THE GOVERNMENT HAS advised childcare providers to introduce a ‘play-pod’ model as they begin to reopen from 29 June as a measure to manage the risk of Covid-19 outbreaks.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone said the purpose of these play-pods is to “keep children as safe as possible” as it limits the number of children and adults that everyone in that small group interacts with.

She said guidance from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, published today, indicates that the size of a play-pod can be in line with current childcare regulations.

For children under the age of one in full day care there could be six children and two adults. For two-year-olds there could be twelve children and two adults.

“We know that young children can’t do social distancing and older children cannot do social distancing in a play context, as we have in our school-age childcare settings,” Zappone said.

She said she believes play-pods will allow children to play “in a natural, spontaneous and creative way”.

Initially the government roadmap had indicated that these service would only resume for the children of essential workers from 29 June. Zappone said today this has been widened and now includes:

  • Children of health and social care workers, other frontline workers, childcare practitioners and parents who need access to childcare in order to return to work;
  • Children sponsored under the National Childcare Scheme, such as children who are homeless or Tusla referrals;
  • Children funded through legacy childcare schemes who are experiencing poverty, disadvantage or child welfare issues;
  • Children previously registered in childcare services on 12 March, whose parents continue to need childcare for employment or training purposes and who were assured they would retain their place through conditions attached to the wage subsidy scheme. 

If capacity issues emerge, priority should be given to children of essential or frontline workers. 

Childminders will also be able to resume looking after children in their own home from 29 June, while complying with the HPSC guidance. 

Zappone said the last two months have been “tough on children” and she said the government wants to do its best to reintroduce some familiarity into their lives.

She acknowledged that there is a risk but this has to be weighed up against the impact of children not returning to early education and childcare. She recommended all parents read the public health advice published today.

She said she hoped it would allow creches time now to assess how many children they can take back in if they decide to reopen. The minister said she hopes that they will see that the play-pods are consistent with existing regulations in terms of the ratios of children to adults.

Zappone also said the government is committed to finding a way to ensure sustainability of the sector and to ensure additional costs are not passed onto parents. 

The government has said it expects that a significant amount of capacity will be available in individual services that reopen in the summer, subject to their space, room layout and staffing availability. While there are 4,500 early learning and care and school-age childcare services in the country, fewer than 2,000 of these normally remain open in July and August.

Following the announcement, childcare provider group Seas Suas said it welcomed the guidance but said it is still not clear how the sector can be both safely and commercially reopened.

“We all share the goal of safely reopening childcare. But safety guidelines are just one part of the challenge. The other is addressing the cold commercial crisis that only one in five children may return to early learning and full day care (ELC) for a prolonged period.

“Guidelines will not meet our significant costs, overheads and don’t pay bills. Mortgages, salaries, utilities and more must be paid for in order to operate. That is before a single euro is spent on Covid-19 related safety requirements.”

The group said childcare “simply cannot return” without a whole of government response.

In a statement ahead of today’s Cabinet meeting, Early Childhood Ireland said that decisions today would “determine the fate” of the sector.

“If public health advice dictates a reduction in capacity – either in operating hours or in the number of children that childcare services can accommodate – then a viable financial response must be developed by government,” Frances Byrne of Early Childhood Ireland said.

“Any changes to reduce capacity will create a funding gap that will severely compromise the long-term sustainability of our sector.

“It is also imperative that the Government acts now to protect jobs in the sector, and to ensure staffing levels as a whole are maintained at pre-Covid-19 levels.”

- With reporting by Christina Finn. 

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