The early years sector is doing us proud during this pandemic – those settings that are able to open to key worker children are pulling together to support families and children. We know this has not been an easy period to navigate. The moral compass points towards remaining open, but with the sector already under financial strain, the numbers often don’t stack up. Having liaised with numerous settings through this time, it is clear that many have had to close to protect their businesses.
For those settings that have remained open, staff are often working extra hours. In my experience, staff are finding their role of a frontline worker gives them a renewed sense of passion, a feeling of being part of an important collective effort. It is vital that we acknowledge their effort and bravery.
It can be as simple as thanking them at the end of the day or telling them to leave early when numbers of children allow. On a larger scale, it is still really important to have those well-being discussions. Plus a bunch of flowers or a bar of chocolate are ways we can show our appreciation.
It is important that staff feel safe as well as valued. As each member of staff enters the building they should immediately wash their hands, and the same for each child. In our setting, parents hand over their child at the door so we can limit the number of people in the building. We are using the same personal protective equipment as we would do normally: aprons for changing and handling food, and anti-bacterial gel to use between regular handwashing. Frequently during the day, door handles, light switches and doorbells are disinfected.
Coronavirus means that risk assessments have had to be constantly adapted in order to keep children and staff safe, and to address the risk of staff numbers falling should they contract the virus. Ratios can be loosened under the exceptional circumstances clause of the EYFS during the pandemic. Children have to be safe and well cared for should this be used as part of a setting’s strategy. Our own setting is over-staffed so that we have a contingency plan. It doesn’t sit comfortably working outside staff-to-child ratios and therefore it is not a situation we have considered.
Children and parents’ well-being
Children’s well-being is paramount. We found children who are usually very happy have struggled a little more from the third week of lockdown. Our emphasis now is very much on love and emotional support, as well as the ongoing teaching and learning. Trying to keep staff on rota that are familiar to the children means they see familiar faces each day, while the staff members understand the children’s routines and know the parents well, ensuring as much continuity of care as possible.
We have allowed children to bring in items that make them feel more comfortable, teddies and the occasional toy, which makes the children settle quicker on those tough mornings. It is also important to keep in touch with children not attending. We have set up a group on social media to share activities and learning ideas, as well as posting photographs of what the children are up to at home, which has really lifted spirits.
Keeping children in a routine helps them to know what to expect and when. In our setting we are still providing the care and educational opportunities that would normally be offered, but we have just changed the environment as we are all in one room. It is important to differentiate activities so all children can join in; such as water play, splashing and exploring with the younger children while we talk about mathematical concepts with older children.
It is also still important to go outside for fresh air and exercise. Taking children into the garden often allows them to play and explore freely and may even help them to social distance if you have a large outdoor area.
We are also finding parents’ emotions are volatile, rising and falling each week. They are often feeling guilty for going to work and leaving their children with people not living in their household. The more anxious the parents become, the more anxious we are finding the children are. It is therefore imperative to try to ease parents’ worries; I find that a five-minute chat at the start and end of the day makes a huge difference.
Our staff team are never in a rush when parents come to the door. Many parents say that a friendly face, a smile and their children being happy when dropped off makes them feel instantly better. For parents who are really struggling, there are a range of places which can help: Citizens Advice for worries about finances, the doctor for well-being, etc., or articles and online resources on support for themselves and their children at home.
We have also taken the opportunity to catch up with a lot of admin – those tasks that slide down the to-do list, such as decorating classrooms, refreshing displays, reviewing policies and cleaning out cupboards. We have also taken the decision not to provide cooked meals during the pandemic. Financially it doesn’t make sense to have a member of staff cooking. Additionally, in the previous month it was exceptionally hard to obtain an online shopping slot and many products were out of stock, so we thought we would remove the stress and ask parents to provide nutritional food, which they have all been happy to do.
In the quieter periods, when we have very few children, the staff have been planning for children returning, thinking about new learning opportunities, rearranging their environments and taking part in training opportunities, either online or completing coursework. In the office, we have been working on business planning, forecasting numbers for the autumn term and starting to liaise with schools regarding those children who will transition to school this year.
The staff team have been amazing, their smiles never fade. It’s these times that really make me proud to belong to the early years sector.