Childcare providers have said they need clarity on how they can re-open in phase 3 of the Government roadmap to easing Covid-19 restrictions, due to start on 29 June.
They also warned that reducing child-to-carer ratios would put some centres out of business.
It’s been two months since crèches and early childhood centres closed due to Covid-19.
“As of 12 March, there were 206,000 babies and children going in and out of crèches, pre-schools and after schools every single day,” said Frances Byrne of Early Childhood Ireland.
That’s 206,000 children now being cared for at home – but what will happen when parents need to get back to work? The truth is, nobody knows yet. Not even the providers themselves.
“I’m looking around at what services are doing in other countries that are already open,” said Siobhan Geissel, director of Kidz Academy in Kildare.
“It would be great to have a directive from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs so we are all on the same page,” she told RTÉ’s This Week.
“What we are expecting is that we will be asked to care for lower numbers of children at any one time.”
But taking fewer kids means less income, and this is not welcome in a sector that was already on a knife edge. There have been ongoing issues with insurance, registration, low pay and high fees for parents.
Ms Geissel has been getting calls from essential workers who are worried that their crèche or preschool places will disappear.
“We will need a great deal of support from the State to make sure that our services remain sustainable and can keep providing valuable support to families in our community,” she said.
Elaine Dunne, chairperson of Federation of Early Childcare Providers, said some facilities have already closed permanently and she believes more will leave the sector.
“Most of us cannot go in there with ten or 12 kids if we’ve previously had up to 40, because as soon as we open our doors we are back to mortgages, rates and all of that. Unless the government can come up with some kind of scheme, there will be a lot of services not opening.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs told This Week that it is costing proposals to ensure “the financial sustainability of the sector when capacity restrictions limit income and parents cannot afford to cover any higher fees”.
It is also working on “ensuring a sufficient number of qualified early learning and childcare practitioners, given the likelihood of reduced adult-child ratios, and existing challenges with recruitment and retention”.
With so many jobs lost to Covid-19, some parents may opt out of crèche places. Others have said they no longer feel confident about dropping off the kids the way they used to.
Linda Byrne, a teacher from Kilternan, Co Dublin, who normally has two children at playschool said she is nervous about going back to a school or crèche setting.
“I’m very concerned about social distancing in schools and childcare. I don’t know how social distancing can be done in childcare settings,” said Linda.
The scheme announced last week to provide affordable childcare to 5,000 health care workers has also run into insurance problems over Covid-19 as it it involves carers going private homes.
Elaine Dunne said there is a lot of fear about going into people’s homes and she doesn’t know of anyone who has decided to take part in the scheme.
Siobhan Geissel said the required Garda vetting can be speeded up but the scheme is due to start next week so it’s a very short lead-in time.
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs said it is too early to assess the response to the scheme for healthcare workers and it cannot indemnify employers in the private sector for insurance purposes.
And that’s just the beginning.
The ESRI estimates that 100,000 essential workers, mainly women and lone parents, also need childcare quickly.
Early Childhood Ireland believes these problems can be overcome with consultation. “It’s complex but not impossible. Whatever the agreed reopening plan, it will need prompt execution,” Frances Byrne told This Week.
“A uniform approach across the various sectors of education is very important. Whatever is happening with schools when they reopen, crèches will need to mirror that.
“Otherwise parents will be left in the lurch. The safe reopening of crèches and pre-schools is critical to the rest of the economy.”Frances Byrne