Early years settings warn of an impending 'crisis' as Covid worsens staff shortages

Katy Morton
Friday, December 17, 2021

Nurseries and childminders could be faced with having to turn parents away or close their setting, as Covid continues to exacerbate long-standing recruitment issues.

Nurseries and childminders are worried they will have to close if Covid-19 cases continue to rise PHOTO Adobe Stock
Nurseries and childminders are worried they will have to close if Covid-19 cases continue to rise PHOTO Adobe Stock

There is growing concern among childcare providers that if Covid cases continue to rise at the current rate, large numbers of staff will become infected and there won’t be enough to run the setting, creating a ‘major crisis’.

According to new Office for National Statistics figures, ‘educators’ are 37 per cent more likely to contract Covid than other workers.

The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) told Nursery World its members are increasingly asking for advice around staffing concerns due to rising Covid-19 cases.

With no available financial support from the Government, providers are also worried about their future sustainability.

It comes as the number of reports by childcare settings of Covid cases hit a record high and confusion from the Government surrounding the close Covid contact rules for under-fives, which have now been amended, reinstating the advice that young children should get a PCR test ‘immediately’ if they live with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

Marley Westell, head of St Luke’s Nursery School in Tunbridge Wells told Nursery World that with the Omicron variant it is ‘only a matter of time' before more people test positive, impacting their ability to operate and be profitable.

She said, ‘With no financial Government support and a limited pool of qualified candidates to employ, how are we to navigate the next few months?

‘Since coming back in September it has been never-ending. What has made the situation very difficult, is that parents continuously bring children with symptoms into nursery despite our numerous requests for them not to. Some of these children have gone on to test positive and within days staff have tested positive too.

'Not only has this impacted on our ability to operate in our usual way, but it has put a great deal of strain on the staff who are Covid free and double vaccinated. They have had to carry the burden of extra shifts and a greater workload. There has not been a week this term where we have not had someone in our nursery community test positive.’

She went on to say, ‘The support we have received from our local authority is virtually non-existent. There have been times where we have thought we might have to close or reduce numbers. We have narrowly missed doing this because our SLT [senior leadership team] realise that the financial implications of this don't bear thinking of, not to mention the damage it will do to our reputation.’

Ms Westell said because they have been unable to show new parents around the setting, they don’t have the number of new children they need in January. They are also unable to find qualified Level 3 practitioners, so have made the decision not to take on more children

Writing on the Champagne Nurseries, Lemonade Funding (CNLF) Facebook page, one user said that this term had been the hardest since the start of the pandemic, and they were trying to work out financially how to survive the next wave of infections.

Childminder Amie Sabatino told Nursery World she is concerned that if she and her family members contact Covid she could be faced with having to close her setting for weeks, which would put her in real difficulty.

She said, ‘I have had continuous Covid issues since September. My assistant was off for six weeks as her and her family had the virus at different times. I know that Government guidelines changed to say she was ok to come to work if she was negative, but with the virus in her house, I wasn’t comfortable with it. I live in a small village and my parents would have found out. I had to pay her while she was off and another assistant to cover her hours.

‘I have been refunding 50 per cent of fees for Covid related time off for the children because parents would be disgruntled to pay full fees when there are so many interruptions. I feel it encourages parents to keep their children off if they have symptoms of coronavirus or if another family member tests positive.

‘I am hoping parents will pay me 50 per cent if I am off with Covid, however that is entirely voluntary.

‘Because I operate from a separate cabin and have an assistant, I’m hoping I can pull together some sort of contingency, but the rules are changing so fast it is hard to know what is acceptable.’

‘I have zero savings left. I will struggle to pay my tax bill in January.’

'It's becoming increasingly difficult for settings to remain open'

NDNA’s chief executive Purnima Tanuku said, ‘It’s becoming increasingly difficult for early years settings to remain open if they start to lose staff to either isolate or because of infections. 

‘Ofsted’s data about cases reported in settings is rising and we know there is a lag of a few weeks in the data. At the same time, although the majority of parents still need access to places for their children, we are hearing of parents taking their children out with no notice because they want to voluntarily isolate in the run up to Christmas.’

‘Both of these issues are extremely worrying for nurseries, most of which stay open until Christmas Eve. The CMA (Competition Market Authority) was clear that nurseries must be fair and balanced regarding parental fees where they have to close. However, if parents are taking their children out and giving no notice, then nurseries will have terms in their contracts about those fees.

Ms Tanuku concluded by calling for additional support for early years settings that have been affected by the pandemic in the form of business rate relief. She also recommended the Government increase the early years pupil premium and other ‘vital support.’

Similarly, the Early Years Alliance urged the Government to ‘look again at how to help settings secure the workforce they need to remain open throughout the challenging weeks and months.’

Chief executive Neil Leitch said, ‘With the Omicron variant continuing to spread rapidly, the early years sector will once again experience more of the unavoidable Covid-19 related staff shortages that it struggled with so much during previous waves of infections.

‘As our recent Breaking Point report showed, early years settings are already battling long-term staffing challenges, with many settings forced to fully or partially close, change their operating hours, or turn some parents away as a result over the past six months.

‘Given that there is no targeted government support for early years staffing currently in place, [such as the workforce fund which has been available to schools since last year,] and that an increase in the number of staff absences is inevitable, we urge the Government to look again at how to help early years settings to secure the workforce they need to remain open throughout the challenging weeks and months to come as a matter of absolute urgency.

‘We call on Government to do everything they can to help keep settings open as we prepare for the difficult months ahead.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'We are incredibly grateful to early years practitioners for their efforts to protect face-to-face education. Attending early education lays the foundation for lifelong learning and development, and making sure children are learning face-to-face continues to be a priority.

'We continue to update guidance to help the early years sector provide a safe and secure environment for children and staff through UKHSA-endorsed control measures. These include maintaining good hygiene, maintaining appropriate cleaning regimes, keeping spaces well-ventilated, and following public health advice on testing, self-isolation and managing confirmed cases.

'We have provided significant support to protect education and childcare providers from the impact of the coronavirus, including £153 million to support education recovery in the early years, and will continue to work with the sector, supporting them to deliver the crucial care and education needed for our youngest children.'

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