Staying open in the coronavirus outbreak: 'Our approach has been to take a positive view on how to offer childcare in this "new normal" '

Sandra Shepherd
Wednesday, June 3, 2020

As nurseries start to reopen for more children, one nursery owner shares her experiences of social distancing for three-year-olds, reassuring parents, and hand sanitiser shortages

Sandra Shepherd, director, Associated Nurseries: 'We have been working very long days and seven days a week'
Sandra Shepherd, director, Associated Nurseries: 'We have been working very long days and seven days a week'

We run two day nurseries one in Burton Upon Trent. Our Swadlincote nursery (54 places) has remained open throughout the whole pandemic and although numbers were drastically reduced, we did find we took on a number of new children (due to their nurseries closing).

Our Burton nursery (53 places) remained open for the first week after the lockdown but as people became furloughed and others at home could look after their children it soon became clear that there was no point in remaining open.

We have been able to furlough a number of staff which has been essential to our survival. Though we are yet to receive the money, we are one of the lucky ones who are covered by insurance (although loss of Revenue actually seems to mean something subtly different!)

From the outset, we have taken a positive and determined attitude towards this. We have read everything we can about the pandemic. Our approach is based on a Process Re-Engineering approach and so we looked at every single process/activity within the nursery. We reviewed them, taking into account the seriousness of the biohazard and started from Bob's standpoint - 'Can we fix it - yes we can!' As a result we were able to find safer ways of doing everything - including making social distancing of three- and four-year-olds year olds not only possible - but fun. We spent many, many hours researching, writing new procedures and training staff.

As well as thinking of ourselves as a nursery, we looked at guidance for other businesses such as restaurants, shops and schools. We also looked at the template risk assessments and really used these as a lens to review what we were doing. We were on the Gov.uk website many times a day reviewing what new legislation/guidance was coming out and reading it very carefully. One of the issues was that there has been so much! Finding the time to run the nursery and keep abreast of the quickly changing legislation has been incredibly challenging - I can see why some settings (e.g. local schools) have just waited to be given guidance rather than being more proactive.

Just before the lockdown, our local South Derbyshire MP, Heather Wheeler, called a meeting of South Derbyshire providers. It was a very good meeting, however, towards the end of the meeting when asked if she agreed the Early Years Settings were underfunded she replied that she didn't really know this. This came as a great surprise to everyone round the table. Given how essential childcare settings are to keyworkers and getting the UK working again, surely it is blindingly obvious?

We have been working very long days and seven days a week to continue. We've had the local shops running out of food (though our Morrison's Community Champion, Helen in Swadlincote, has been a great help throughout). We've had to source visors, infrared thermometers and masks.

We are currently finding that hand sanitiser for the automatic no touch dispensers have become almost impossible to get hold of. Fortunately we had a sufficient stock to tide us through so far. 

The main issue that everyone faces is total underfunding in the first place (wages, quite rightly were rising - but just like care homes the Government didn't increase the hourly rate for providers, anywhere near enough. The current level of occupancy isn't sustainable unless the funding model is drastically modified, both in the short term and in the long term. A number of nurseries local to us are openly stating that with everything that has happened and what was happening before they are seriously considering closing.

Some parents are scared (the schools in general haven't helped here), some parents don't need the childcare at the moment or at least at the same levels.

Some parents do want childcare but on a shift basis or for the under-twos. Our approach has been to take a positive view point on how to offer childcare in this 'new normal' and so we are being very positive with our parents. We talk of what we have done and are doing to reduce risk and keep their child safe. Let's face it everyone is aware that you can't get the risk to zero, but parents want to know what (as professionals) we are doing, not that we can't offer guarantees.

The latter approach (taken by some local LA settings and private) only serves to scare people further and cause unnecessary stress. We are where we are and there is no point in waiting for others to tell us what to do or keep on going on about how bad and dangerous things are. It's important to live for today and look for the positive. Yes, the dangers are real but it is the fear not the danger that paralyses.

The main challenges we face going forwards are: sourcing hand sanitiser, persuading a population of parents to return who have been provided with really scary, nightmarish anxieties about their safety and the safety of their child and making the finances add up - furloughing staff with no children to care for equals disaster.

Comparing the above challenges with the challenge of getting a three-year-old to social distance - the above are 100 times more difficult and also may be impossible. If the Government wishes to retain childminders, pre-schools and day nurseries, action is needed now.

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