By Sue Cowley
On Sunday 10 May, Boris Johnson gave a speech on television in which he outlined a ‘roadmap’ for the future during the Coronavirus crisis. The roadmap included a plan for easing lockdown restrictions and for reopening schools. There was no mention of early years settings in his speech, beyond a reference to Reception classes.
By Monday 11 May, with the publication of guidance, it became clear that the changes were intended to include all childcare settings, and that early years settings were potentially being asked to open to all of their children.
With the situation around coronavirus changing almost daily, settings are being expected to adapt and respond to a rapidly moving set of goalposts. The Prime Minister's announcement set a provisional date of 1 June for ‘nurseries and other early years providers, including childminders, to begin welcoming back all children’.
In a last-minute update, the Department for Education (DfE) announced that childminders would be able to open to multiple children from a single household, if they were not already caring for keyworker or vulnerable children from 13 May onwards. Nannies were also allowed to restart work from the same date. From 1 June, childminders would be able to extend their offer to all their children, if they assess that it is safe to do so.
At the time of writing this, the date of 1 June is couched in uncertainty. It will only be ‘with further progress’ that the Government ‘may be able’ to ask settings to allow more children back.
The guidance published by the DfE confirms that reopening can only happen if ‘five key tests’ are met, including the rate of infection decreasing. Given that there have been new outbreaks of coronavirus in countries that eased their lockdowns before the UK, it seems quite likely that these timings may change.
Of course, many early years settings have never actually closed. Approximately 22,000 (or 26 per cent) of all settings have remained partially open for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. Of those attending these settings, around 59,000 are key worker children and 6,000 are vulnerable children.
However, even if reopening to all children does not happen in the projected timescale, it will be useful to plan ahead for when it does.
Examining the guidance
The guidance states that it is based on the ‘latest understanding of the science’ which shows that children are less at risk than adults. However, there are significant questions being asked about staff who will come into close contact with children. Young children may be unable to fully understand the need to socially distance and for extra care around hygiene, and the work of early years practitioners relies on close contacts.
Settings are asked to welcome all children under statutory school age back into their provision, but the guidance states that the demand for childcare is likely to be lower than usual. It also suggests that existing ratios and requirements mean that small group working should be possible. The DfE acknowledges that a temporary cap on numbers may be necessary, to ensure that safety is maintained, with three and four-year-olds given priority as required.
Staff and children in all settings will be eligible for testing, but only if they show symptoms.
Evidence to date shows that young children may well be asymptomatic – in other words they can be spreading the virus without showing symptoms.
Working with your families
It is going to be very important for us to help families feel safe about returning, and that they understand that this will not look like provision ‘as normal’. Settings will have to run significantly differently to help ensure everyone's safety.
To minimise numbers returning, you might suggest to parents that if it is possible to keep their children at home, this would be helpful. You might also ask that parents only use the hours that they are at work, to help you spread the load.
Once you have worked out the procedures you are going to take to ensure everyone's safety, you will need to explain these to parents and give them written guidance. It will also be useful to give parents guidance on how to keep themselves safe while travelling to and arriving at your setting, particularly if they need to use public transport.
An important starting point is to do a risk assessment, ensuring that you make it specific to your setting. Consider how you can overcome some of the challenges that you face. What did you do before you closed and how will this need to change in order for you to reopen?
The guidance states that settings will need to increase cleaning, reduce ‘pinch points’ (places where people might gather or stand close to each other), and consider how to deal with drop off and pick up times. This might be by staggering arrival times for parents, or by marking up areas for them to wait, with two metre spacing in a similar way that supermarkets have done. Your risk assessment needs to cover how all this will be done.
Consider particularly how you are going to deal safely with hygiene, including handwashing, nappy changing and deep cleaning of the setting. Staff and children will need to wash their hands frequently during the day, including on arrival at and when leaving the setting. Regularly touched surfaces should be cleaned throughout the day with bleach-based products.
When doing your risk assessment, think about the worst-case scenario – be fully prepared in terms of what you will do if a child or an adult becomes ill while at your setting. Ensure that you understand the correct procedures and have purchased the relevant personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to deal with this situation, as outlined in the DfE's guidance. You will need to put the child in a separate area of your provision with one member of staff to supervise, and you should call parents immediately.
Remember that, if your risk assessment shows that it is not safe to reopen, an employer's first duty of care is to the staff and families using the setting. Speak with staff about their feelings and their situations around this area – if staff are vulnerable or shielding, or if they live with vulnerable people, it might be that you cannot safely reopen at present. It is not a requirement to reopen – you are simply being asked by Government to do so.
The key to safety is going to be to minimise contact between different groups of children, and between children and staff. To do this, you will need to create small ‘bubble’ type groups, where one member of staff works with a small group of children.
Advice from practitioners in those countries such as Denmark and Norway, where settings have already reopened, is to section off areas of your provision and to keep the smaller groups of perhaps five children within one single area with a single member of staff.
Consider how these small groups will be formed – good practice is to consider both friendship groups currently and also potential new relationships. It may work best to keep children of a similar age together, or perhaps to use your current key person groups. Clearly, the top priority needs to be the children's well-being and mental health.
In terms of resourcing, choose resources that can easily be cleaned daily, and perhaps twice daily, preferably in a washing machine on a very hot wash. You could provide a box of toys for each ‘bubble’ group, rotating these each day after thorough cleaning. Children might have their own individual packs of resources, to include paper and mark making materials for art and loose parts for play.
The evidence seems to show that, in terms of spread, being outdoors is far safer than being indoors, so settings should aim to make the maximum use of outdoor areas. Consider how you might use natural resources outdoors to minimise the need for cleaning – children might gather sticks and leaves during a nature walk and create art using these – they can be more easily discarded once used.
Think about how you are going to deal with handwashing – for instance you might want to invest in mobile sinks that you can have available outside for everyone to use. Think about both staff and children's clothing as well. Staff should change and have a clean set of clothes daily and preferably shower and change either before leaving the setting, or immediately on arriving home.
Children should be sent in with a bag containing a change of clothing in case this is needed.
They should also bring in their own water bottle from home, clearly labelled to ensure that there is no mixing.
Children are very adaptable and will get used to the new routines quickly. The most difficult aspect for children and staff is likely to be close contact. Clearly, social distancing is not going to be possible – if a child approaches you needing a hug, you will of course hug them. It is not possible to change nappies at a distance.
Think very carefully about staff well-being and how you can ensure that staff feel listened to, and as safe as is possible in the circumstances. Hold team meetings to consider your plans and get regular feedback on how things are going for individuals.
Considering the challenges
Settings will face a range of challenges when reopening, or allowing more children back in, and these will vary according to the type of provision. You will need to consider whether you have enough staff to have smaller groups as required, or whether you are going to have to limit the number of children attending.
You will need to think about your finances, and how you are going to afford to pay staff if they are required to do additional days/hours. You will need to consider your children's emotional well-being, particularly around the transition back into your setting.
If you are in a setting where children attend for different hours and days, this will have an impact on the kind of ‘bubble’ groups that you can create. You will also need to consider what kind of ratio staff are comfortable with for their ‘bubbles’.
Above all else, keep everyone's well-being at the forefront of your mind. Be aware that staff may feel extremely anxious about reopening. Ensure that they understand that their safety is your top priority, and that they able to talk openly about any concerns.
Coronavirus guidance for schools and other educational settings: https://bit.ly/2WHIRzW
Coronavirus guidance on implementing protective measures in settings: https://bit.ly/2ZdCwh3
Coronavirus guidance for parents and carers: https://bit.ly/2z0jDUm