Nursery staff's fear and pride working on the frontline

Annette Rawstrone speaks to early years leaders and practitioners about coping with the risks of caring for other critical workers' children in the coronavirus pandemic

Social distancing with very young children is impossible
Social distancing with very young children is impossible

When people are standing on their doorsteps and balconies clapping for key workers, how many are thinking of the childcarers who are also potentially putting themselves at risk by looking after other critical workers children?

While early years workers are expressing pride at being able to help during the pandemic, they also feel that they are not receiving practical advice from the Government and not being properly recognised for the importance of the job that they are doing in precarious circumstances.

Above all, many are feeling scared. Scared that it is impossible to do their job and stay safe. Scared that by caring for other people’s children - some of whom are frontline medics - they are putting their own families at greater risk of contracting Covid-19.  

At close quarters

‘Has anyone tried social distancing with an 18-month-old?’ questions David Wright, owner of Paint Pots Nurseries which has three of its 10 Southampton settings open. He describes feeling ‘tension’ between mixed directives to close settings and yet to stay open for the children of key workers and vulnerable children.

He is worried about keeping the children and his staff teams safe and is frustrated by the lack of specific Government or Public Health England guidance for early years settings, while acknowledging that they are dealing with many new issues.

‘They have just sympathised and referred us back to the schools guidance where early years has been tacked on,’ he says. ‘You can read about social distancing but what does that mean when you have to engage with young children’s emotional and physical needs? They require intimacy whether that is changing a nappy, washing or feeding or giving cuddles. These needs all need to be met and staff can’t stick two metres away.

‘Also, staff who are working in nurseries can’t be physically distancing from each other because they need the support. Social isolation impacts on well-being and you need to accept close proximity in a work environment.’

Personal protective equipment

The Government has issued guidance that early years settings ‘do not need’ personal protective equipment (PPE) and they should care for children ‘as normal’ with increased hand-washing and surface cleaning. Many practitioners had already come to that conclusion – one childminder, who is caring for the son of two doctors in her home alongside her own children, laughed at the suggestion of PPE.

Others have said how wearing masks or visors would compromise their work, hinder communication and make children more anxious in what is already a difficult situation. 

Nurseries have put in practical measures to help reduce the spread of coronavirus including:

  • Emphasising the Government guidelines on self-isolation if displaying any symptoms and not sending the child to nursery.
  • Parents dropping children at the door and not entering the building.
  • Hand-washing immediately when staff and children arrive and frequently throughout the day.
  • Daily temperature checks of staff and children.
  • Removing activities that could pose a higher risk of transferring the virus, such as sand and water play, play dough and cooking activities.
  • Daily deep cleaning.
  • Staff changing and showering before having close contact with their family.

Consulting staff

After ascertaining the need to keep settings open, nursery owners and managers have consulted employees to work out who will be able to continue working, screening out those who are at risk because of known health conditions or living with vulnerable people.

‘When we asked who was willing to work, some verbalised that they were “scared to do so” but would do,’ says Mr Wright. ‘As time has gone on they have realised that it is OK. For some who are working they have found that they would rather be engaging with children rather than sat at home watching the news and worrying.’

Bertram Nursery Group, which has 42 settings, has kept two nurseries in Scotland and three in Manchester open, including one at Salford Royal Hospital. A staff well-being questionnaire sent to those still working highlighted concerns including not being able to see family, the effect that the pandemic will have on children and worry about travelling to work – with transport being reduced the respondent now has to get two buses which they fear puts them at greater risk of contamination.

Despite the worries, staff express feeling ‘useful’, pleased to be supporting other parents to do their ‘important work’ and to be giving children some normality. One said, ‘I feel like I’ve played a part in saving others’ lives.’     

Cary Rankin, Bertram chief executive, says that they are supporting staff who are working by regularly phoning the nursery managers, sending treats to the nurseries, continuing to monitor well-being through questionnaires and giving those working a daily bonus additional to their usual salary.

‘We are checking in on staff, whether they are at home or work because they all need consideration,’ says Mr Wright. ‘They all have anxieties be it their job, health or loved ones so we are making a big effort to reassure and connect. They are worried whether we are going to pay them and will there be a job for them to come back to. We are reassuring them that the families are still there, they are just behind closed doors at the moment and people will still need childcare when we come out of this.’

Financial risks

Unfortunately those who are called on to go out to work are potentially putting their bank balances at risk as well as their health. ‘If staff are furloughed at home they will receive 80 per cent and possibly 100 per cent of their wage,’ says Mr Wright. ‘If they are in work they do not receive more money but they are more at risk and if they were to contract the virus or need to self-isolate then they would be on statutory sick pay which is not fair, they are being financially penalised.’

The parents who are continuing to use Paint Pots Nurseries are being incredibly supportive and praising the childcare staff for being ‘super heroes’. Sadly, Mr Wright does not think that the essential work that the childcare sector is doing in response to the pandemic will change the status of early years workers in society, although it may bring more recognition of the need for childcare to keep other jobs going.

Bertram staff echo his thoughts. ‘There was an overwhelming response from all the staff that they do not feel recognised externally other than by the parents they are serving,’ says Mr Rankin.

‘Many commented that they have been turned away from shops and have not been allowed the privileges that other key workers have. Many hope that this will change after this pandemic and the early years industry will be recognised for the vital service it provides.’

CASE STUDY: Anxiety levels rocketing

‘My initial reaction to being told that we had to stay open to key worker children and those who are vulnerable was that I wasn’t doing it. I didn’t want to put myself at risk and increase the risk to my own children by sending them into school. Then I calmed down,’ says the manager of a standalone setting.

‘After a team meeting laying out our plans for how it might work, four staff made the decision that they did not want to work. They couldn’t cope with the anxiety that working would cause them. They felt they needed to stay at home and keep their children safely with them. The main concern of all staff was why should they put their own families at a higher risk?

‘I feel the staff who have chosen not to work are suffering mental health-wise more than the rest of us. They say they felt alone in the first few days after they finished, penalised, backed into a corner, left out, not part of a team, pressurised to work but not wanting to so they can protect their own families. I have given a lot of support to them which is tough to deal with while having my own doubts about keeping my own family safe.

‘The staff who are working are very anxious. They describe their home life as being stressful because their children have picked up on the anxiety they feel about coming into work. Their children are angry, crying and their behaviour declining. Staff ask many questions from whether they will get PPE and how to social distance from children, to how to keep an EHCP child safe who puts things in his mouth? We are also dealing with the practical issues of how to manage the extra cleaning while caring for the children and how to buy snacks when the queue in the shop takes an hour.

‘Continuing to work has left staff waking in cold sweats and anxiety levels rocketing. We are terrified that we’ll take the virus home and won’t be able to forgive ourselves.’

Further information


Anxiety UK:

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