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The government's Covid-19 childcare plans, while noble, will not benefit children

Karen Clince of Tigers Childcare says there is another way to provide childcare safely, and she has some suggestions.

I’VE BEEN WORKING in professional childcare for almost 20 years. For the past 17 years, I have been running Tigers Childcare, a chain of 14 childcare centres across Dublin, Meath and London. I am also a mother of two so am acutely aware of the challenges of balancing work and childcare.

As a country, it seems we have spent a lot of time looking at getting our economy back to work without giving serious consideration to what is a vital service for hundreds of thousands of working parents – childcare.

I welcome recent moves by the government to consult with providers like us to try and find a workable solution. No one understands the intricacies of safe childcare provision better than those on the ground providing a professional childcare service year-round. However, concerns remain.

‘No’ to Norway’s way

Minister Zappone’s recent proposed solution mimics the Norwegian model. Children would be in separate “pods”, meaning small groups of three to four would be looked after by the same carer in the same room with other pods. Children would use the same toys and books within their pods to prevent cross-contamination.

While the solution recognises that it isn’t realistic, natural or healthy to expect very young children and toddlers to adhere to social distance I believe that confining children to such small groups is a departure from anything good for children – namely, social activity and learning without unnecessary restrictions.

Effective, developmental childcare means that we follow children’s’ leads: we cannot stop children from, say, wanting to access art supplies or playing with different groups of children in the same room. That goes against everything we know about child development.

Having such small hubs present further issues with capacity as it limits the number of children providers can have in a setting at any one time. So how do we choose which children come back to childcare so that their parents can work and for how long? We believe in everyone having equal access to childcare, and this goes against that.

Additionally, we have many vulnerable children who use our services. As it stands, they’ve all been left high and dry. And the proposed new system would be little improvement.

Coronavirus might be with us for some time, as the World Health Organization (WHO) recently warned, even if we do find a vaccine. So, any changes made to our childcare system might be long-term. We don’t want to change the world as we know it, especially for our youngest children.

What is workable?

So how can we avoid compromising socialisation and development while maintaining a safe childcare facility for everyone that allows children to interact and play healthily and naturally?

When our team at Tigers Childcare examined this, health & safety was obviously a key focus. Using the Return to Work Safety Protocol from The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation as a starting point we looked in detail at safety in our settings to identify suitable control measures to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 for both our colleagues and our children.

From that, we created our own detailed Covid-19 response plan, with health and safety at its core while serving the developmental needs of our children and the childcare needs of parents. It works on the principle that with care, sterilisation and practical measures, children and staff can stay safe without needlessly isolating children.

The plan covers pre-opening steps from sterilisation of the facilities to setting up handwashing stations and providing Personal Protective Equipment. With new research suggesting that children don’t seem to be ‘super-spreaders,’ our focus turns more to their carers, how to minimise contact between them and ensure they don’t cross between rooms.

The day-to-day measures would work as follows: children would have to arrive in fresh clean clothes; morning handovers would take place at the door; children’s and carers’ hands would be sanitised before entry; all outside shoes would be removed; and finally, all temperatures would have to be checked.

Once that’s all established, children would be able to play, learn and interact in group settings that are close enough to what they are used to. While somewhat smaller than before they should be able to freely move around the room they are in.

Preservation of childhood

Our job should still be to observe what the child is interested in and support that. We have always looked at what they can and can’t do and worked with that. We work out activities based on these observations. All of that comes from giving children some degree of freedom.

Our response plan is by no means fail-safe and it’s a work in progress that will be updated in line with the latest public health advice. We also expect the experience of other countries to inform our decisions closer to opening.

However, it’s becoming clear that any solution needs to strike the right balance between health, safety and normal child development. It also needs to be practical so that we’re not left choosing what parent needs childcare support more than another.

This is no mean feat but the wrong approach could undo years of childcare progress and damage countless children’s early development. However, I believe we can do it right if we look beyond the short term. It is possible to limit the spread of the coronavirus and simultaneously maintain safe, nurturing childcare.

Karen Clince is Managing Director of Tigers Childcare. She is also chair of the Fingal Childcare Committee and acts as an advisor to many Government departments and voluntary bodies on childcare and early years education.

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