Written by Zoe Raven
To open or not to open, that seems to be the question for a lot of schools, and the dilemma of whether to send their children back even if they are open is a dilemma for many parents. For those of us in the early years sector, our dilemma is not really one of whether to open or not, but how best to open, and how best to provide childcare that safeguards both the children and the staff. If parents need to work, (whether in a workplace or at home) they need to know that their child is being cared for, is safe, and is happy.
Half of our nurseries stayed open throughout the lockdown period, caring for the children of keyworker families and for children classified as vulnerable. From next week, all of our nurseries will be open for any parents who want to bring their children back, but it’s been a very strange week, planning our new normal of social bubbles, and lengthy discussions of how best to balance health and safety with emotional wellbeing – for children and adults. The number of children in each bubble will be strictly limited, and the bubbles will be kept separate, but within that bubble, they will be able to play normally with each other.
When we conducted a survey of parents and staff, earlier this month, we found that a majority were keen to get back to nursery, and felt happy and confident to do so, but a sizeable minority were anxious, to different degrees, about the potential risk of infection, especially as it is clear to everyone that social distancing and small children are completely incompatible. It was a relief to us that no-one has suggested that we should not be able to cuddle the children in our care, and it has been very reassuring that we have had no cases of infection in the last ten weeks, despite caring for the children of many frontline workers. We are pleased that only just over half our children are returning in June – it enables us to get used to the new arrangements with a smaller number of children, and also means that staff who are less confident about returning to work can remain on furlough for a few more weeks. Fortunately, the age group we’re working with is the least likely to be affected by the virus, but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent.
What protection can we offer? Only lots of additional hygiene precautions for adults, and lots of handwashing for children – and some changes to the kinds of resources and activities we can safely provide to minimise the risk of transmitting the virus. Many of our nursery managers have commented that the nursery environments are cleaner and less cluttered than they’ve ever been, and although some aspects of the new ‘bubbles’ arrangements feel like a backward step, in reducing the opportunities for free-flow, keeping siblings together and ensuring consistent staffing for each group is going to be very reassuring for children adapting to a different kind of nursery experience.
Each of our nurseries is a different size and with a wide variety of types of building. Some lend themselves beautifully to the new arrangements, and some are more challenging, and may need us to reduce the capacity for a few months. Our newest nursery, at Cold Harbour, is in the enviable position of having an amazing outdoor space, and we are fortunate in that all our nurseries already made maximum use of their outdoor areas, encouraging children to spend a large part of their day in the fresh air. Our trips and outings have been curtailed, but the benefits of being outdoors have never been more evident, and we are making the very best of the spaces that we have.
We’re also very fortunate in having excellent relationships with our nursery parents, and we have tried very hard to keep up communication with them and their children throughout the lockdown period. If you think zoom calls are a challenge, try doing them with a group of three year olds! The current crisis has brought out the best in so many people (and the worst, in a few) and I am incredibly proud of our staff teams who have risen to the challenge of the last few weeks with dedication and professionalism. There will be some positives to come out of the whole episode, and I really do hope that one of them will be a recognition of the true value of caring – not only of carers in health and social care, but also childcare professionals in the early years sector. We’re not just preparing children for school, but are providing attentive and responsive care that will enable children to feel safe, comfortable, nurtured and loved. Caring is a moral value as well as a practice, and we all need to feel cared for, as individuals and within a caring society.