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Childcare? Ireland’s parents and early learning and childcare providers are still none the wiser

29 January 2021 - JOURNAL.IE

Yesterday afternoon, following the Taoiseach’s Tuesday evening speech on the latest lockdown restrictions, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration, and Youth Roderic O’Gorman announced measures for the early learning and childcare sector.

If only there had been something new in them. All we learned was that early learning and childcare services will remain open for the children of essential and frontline workers and vulnerable children only and financial supports already in place for certain children and care providers are to be extended by an additional five weeks, up to 5 March.

Minister O’Gorman’s department (DCEDIY) continues to plan in hours and days, not weeks and months. Of course, we can all understand that the pandemic doesn’t operate to a timetable, and that living in a period such as we are requires flexibility and resilience. However, when so much of Ireland’s recovery depends on a functioning childcare system, not least an efficiently run health service and a fully productive remote-working economy, we, as a sector, cannot sit idly by.

What we need now is a collaboratively developed framework in which we can properly manage the delivery of childcare services for the remainder of 2021 while society remains in lockdown and vaccines are administered. What will these services look like? Who will they be provided to and how? We are not suggesting that these questions will be easy to answer, or that a grand reopening must happen next week or even next month, only that they must be carefully considered now, well in advance of a return to normal.

This does not require going back to the drawing board. Until recently, Ireland’s early learning and childcare services were fully open and operating safely. Early learning and childcare professionals across the country were dutifully turning up every day to care for and educate young children in Covid-secure environments while parents, many of whom were frontline workers, did their jobs unimpeded.

And what a relief that was. Any parent of a young child knows that, no matter one’s best intentions, it is practically impossible to simultaneously carry out the roles of home-school teacher, carer, and working professional. This was universally acknowledged at the beginning of the first lockdown last March, and it came as a great relief to the country—and to the economy—to have children back in a safe creche environment once safe protocols were established. Now, almost a year later, it seems like we are back to square one.

We need to work together more

Many parents probably believe that, given childcare’s essential role in society, its representative bodies, like the one I chair, Seas Suas, are in constant two-way communication with the Government, and that our experts actively collaborate with various departments to build workable solutions for parents, children, and staff.

Sure enough, Minister O’Gorman said in yesterday’s announcement that he had engaged with the sector and outlined the measures to us on 25 January, and DCEDIY does indeed hold weekly advisory meetings with sector representatives.

However, these meetings are not adequately collaborative; most of the time, DCEDIY advises us to “hold tight” and await further instruction. Even though childcare professionals know precisely what is happening on the ground, what works, and what doesn’t, our practical knowledge is not sought out. Subsequent policy decisions are not road tested for feedback or views on the practicalities among the sector before being announced through media.

DCEDIY’s go-it-alone approach has had many negative consequences since the start of the pandemic. Last March, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs—as it was formerly known under Minister Katherine Zappone — advanced a number of childcare plans that were to the sector and to parents clearly totally impractical; they had been formulated without meaningful consultation. When it became clear that these plans wouldn’t help parents or society in any way, and would actually cause problems, they were quietly shelved.

The go-it-alone approach, of course, leads to more than just wasted time. Today, childcare settings are open only in a very limited capacity and reality of the situation is stark. Providers who are open are maintaining employment for all their staff, carrying costs, and making fee arrangements with parents while capacity is at best 30% and in many instances as little as 10%. While the sector has made this point many times, and has suffered financially because of it, there is still no clear plan for funding supports from DCEDIY or the rest of the Government; the Department of Finance, which ultimately pulls the purse-strings, has not been involved in this problem in any public way. Additional support is promised but we have yet no meaningful details or engagement. Given that lockdown is now extended for a further six weeks, as of Tuesday, this leaves providers and those who depend on us in an extremely difficult situation. This is an example of a major issue that remains unresolved, despite it being one we are extremely keen to fix.

Vaccines for childcare workers

We also need greater clarity on the childcare sector’s role or position in the vaccine rollout. We, and our teams of early years professionals, are essential and frontline workers providing essential services throughout this challenging period. Even though childcare professionals currently provide a service to essential workers at an acutely critical moment in the fight against Covid-19, they are not classified as key workers themselves as per the groups identified in the vaccination rollout plan; in fact, they are eleventh in the queue for vaccination.

It is still not clear to us what logic decided the Government’s decision to separate childcare workers and, indeed, teachers, from the country’s other essential ‘key’ workers; it is not clear to us because it was never communicated.

Childcare workers and teachers are considered high priorities for vaccination in many other countries, including the United States, Germany, and Italy; in all three, they have been placed in the third phase of their respective vaccination rollouts.

It is our belief that childcare workers should be reclassified as “key workers” under the Irish Government’s vaccination rollout programme, thereby speeding up their inoculation.

In doing so, early learning and childcare settings will be made safer, their reopening quickened, and potential chains of transmission broken. For childcare professionals, who are currently educating and caring for children of doctors and nurses, it will be an added assurance that they are protected from Covid-19. This is a conversation that we would like to have with the Taoiseach, and the wider Government.

Reset the relationship

The early learning and childcare sector want to reset its relationship with Government in the interest of our children and parents. We want to work together with the Government as collaborative partners—the “experts” in childcare—and to have our practical knowledge tapped throughout and after the pandemic.

Throughout, because the current situation is not tenable for the majority of Irish parents; after, because there are still many long-term, pre-pandemic issues with childcare in Ireland that must be resolved, particularly if we hope to spur on economic recovery in the latter half of 2021.



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