‘A lot of anxiety’: childcare centres and parents warn of trouble ahead as Covid spreads

·6-min read

Early childhood educators are pleading for more financial support and rapid tests amid spiralling staff shortages

For early childhood educator Alice Clarke, it’s not a question of if she acquires Covid-19, it’s when.

“Honestly, in the next three weeks I’ll have Covid,” she said. “It’s just an anticipation now of how bad it’s going to be.”

Clarke lives with a compromised immune system – she has type 1 diabetes – so she is relieved to have had her booster shot. But it seems inevitable she will come into contact with Covid, having regular contact with more than 60 children at her Horsham preschool, all of whom are unvaccinated.

She fears the spread of the virus and the associated teacher shortages will be “extremely difficult” for childcare centres, with regional areas particularly vulnerable.

“It’s going to be a shitshow,” Clarke said.

“We don’t have many relief teachers available, and we’re going to have staff in and out and children not regularly attending. Particularly in regional areas, there just aren’t enough quality educators.”

She said it will be “extremely difficult” to deliver a high quality program for children this year.

“We’ll just be trying to get by. I’m anticipating a worse year this year than the last two.”

Related: Covid doesn’t just stop at the front door of Australia's childcare centres | Lisa Bryant

Childcare centres have warned they are on the verge of closing if they don’t receive additional support, as absence rates surge amid the Omicron outbreak.

In a letter sent to the acting education and youth minister Stuart Robert last week, , the sector’s peak bodies called for more financial support and rapid antigen tests for staff.

As of 18 January, 420 childcare centres were closed across Australia because of Covid, including 209 in New South Wales.

“The current wave … is causing major disruption to the provision of education and care services due to a combination of reduced attendance and significant staff shortages due to illness and isolation requirements,” the letter, provided to Guardian Australia, warned.

“Without measures … to safeguard education and care services, the risk of systemic adverse service viability outcomes and service closures will be catastrophically increased.”

More than 3,000 members of the Early Learning Association Australia said more than one-in-four staff were absent because of Covid, with some centres reporting a majority of staff unable to work.

Peak childcare bodies have written to the acting education and youth minister Stuart Robert, urging more support from the federal government.
Peak childcare bodies have written to the acting education and youth minister Stuart Robert, urging more support from the federal government. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Child attendance numbers were also down, with absence rates as high as 43% across large providers compared to about 10% in November and December.

The letter said a lack of access to RATs was compromising safety.

“Without access to RATs staff who have been exposed but are asymptomatic are attending work with vulnerable children who cannot be immunised, which further increases the risk of Covid spreading within services,” the letter said.

As a result, parents are choosing to keep their children at home, rather than risk exposure.

Parents concerned about safety

Darwin-based university lecturer Keller Kopf was notified last week that his son’s childcare centre had closed due to positive Covid cases among carers.

When it reopened this week, Kopf decided against returning his four-year-old boy to the centre.

Kopf’s child lives with severe asthma that resulted in him being frequently hospitalised in 2021. As his son is unvaccinated, Kopf said he wasn’t willing to take the risk.

Melbourne GP Kate’s four-year-old contracted the virus from childcare in October, while herself, her husband and two-year-old were struck down on NYE.

“I always thought the risk would be my work but the first episode was daycare,” Kate, who did not want to use her last name, said. “We haven’t had much in the way of a choice. I can’t work with them – they’re two and four.”

Kate hopes her children’s immunity since contracting the virus will protect them now that Covid has again begun to spread at the daycare centre, which has closed three times in the past year.

“In the short term it should be safe, but that will change next month,” she said.

Financial pain for centres

Services can waive gap fees for a child who doesn’t attend childcare because they, or a member of their household, have been directed to isolate due to Covid-19, or where a centre is closed on government advice. But they can’t if a centre doesn’t have enough staff, or if families are worried about safety.

The sector is calling for an absence payment covering at least 15% of the gap fee for an absent child to be offered for an expanded list of Covid related reasons, guaranteed income funding and priority to be given to early educators for booster appointments.

They are also calling for all staff and children to be tested twice weekly or every day for close contacts.

It follows the federal government’s decision to exempt close contacts from isolation rules for a range of workers, including in education.

Labor’s shadow minister for early childhood education, Amanda Rishworth, has also written to Robert calling for urgent action, including access to free RATs for early learning services, prioritised booster appointments, and improved ventilation.

“As early educators and children become infected, or directed to isolate at home, early learning services are being left in a precarious position,” Rishworth said.

“Families that are keeping their children at home because they are close contacts are being forced to pay for childcare they cannot use, and as a result some are choosing to withdraw their children from care, dealing another financial blow to services.

Shadow early childhood minister Amanda Rishworth.
Shadow early childhood minister Amanda Rishworth. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

“The issues arising from Omicron were foreseen and it is the role of the commonwealth government to plan for such eventualities and provide national leadership so that children, families and educators can attend services safely.”

David Worland, the chief executive at ELAA, said staff shortages had worsened since last year as infections rise.

He said additional funding to implement Covid-safe work practices was needed.

“We need a commitment from the federal government to some financial support that gives service providers a guaranteed income flow compared to pre-Covid,” he said.

Community Child Care’s executive director Julie Price said childcare workers were highly stressed.

“There’s a lot of anxiety amongst educators and teachers about their exposure to coronavirus. Service leaders are worried about children and families, their staff.

Price said requiring service leaders to be responsible for their own contact tracing was only compounding stress.

Related: Isolating with Covid: Australians grapple with supply shortages and shared houses

“People are worn out. I’ve heard of people who’ve just said I’ve had enough, I’m going,” she said.

A spokesperson from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment said the federal government had invested about $3.2bn in the early childhood sector since the pandemic began, including an extra 10 allowable absence days per child.

They said detailed operational plans for teachers and educators, including mask wearing and rapid antigen testing would be set during national cabinet this week.

“National Cabinet … agreed that child care is a critical sector and will be included in close contact arrangements for essential workers in each state and territory,” the spokesperson said.

“Close contact isolation rules are enabling more services to stay open during the Omicron wave.”

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