It has been an unsettling time and I was interested to see how everyone coped, says June O’Sullivan…
It is probably too soon to know the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Early Years but I hope the sector media is collecting and collating the emerging stories.
On the 23rd of March we went into lockdown, Ceeda research tells us that about 37 per cent of settings decided to remain open in some form or another to support the families of essential workers and vulnerable children.
Many of those nurseries were attached to hospitals and others serving local populations.
I kept 15 of our 39 nurseries open and the learning was very interesting. I called us the fourth Emergency Service.
The health and safety, the support for staff, the Covid pedagogy were all important elements of the staying open experience.
For those staff who were furloughed, the focus was regular contact, training opportunities, quizzes and games, online groups and check ins.
Combined, they all became an essential part of lockdown life.
People always remember how you made them feel, and so I am intrigued to listen to the emerging stories as colleagues begin to describe their experiences.
Some have done very well, used the time to study and learn new hobbies, others seemed crushed by the isolation and fear and some just danced through and used it as an extended holiday.
During lockdown, I had a daily call to the nurseries which were staffed with colleagues from many of our nurseries all joining up together.
The high staff ratios made a real difference to the richness of the experiences for the children and the lack of hurry through the day to push to “get things done” meant the staff and the children could wallow together in pure deep and uninterrupted play.
The sofa, an essential item in any LEYF nursery, was well used for nurturing conversations, reading and singing or just cuddling up and enjoying the moment.
The garden had a renewed focus, sustained by the nice weather and the message from the scientists that the virus was less likely to spread outdoors.
On the daily video calls, I got a buzz from watching the children engage in their joyful play.
It was a great cure to the stress of leading an organisation through uncertainties, managing changing policy messages and pushing back against unfair interpretations of national Covid funding and furlough grant aids. Nothing new there!
The staff described their nurseries as cocoons, calm and slow, perhaps also reflecting the change in many households to slow living and cooking.
New staff who joined us just before lockdown had a happy and calm induction, with time to think and absorb the new learning. They benefited from lots of coaching using a relaxed and pedagogical conversation style.
Across the sector the general approach was of positivity and resilience, although I was very aggrieved that it took a long time for us to be acknowledged by the national press and politicians or be thanked for navigating through the toxic debate about returning to school.
I also felt sad for those many schools that had also remained open during lockdown who never had a voice in the debate.
So, now we are back. Last count 87% of settings were open in some form or other. We don’t know how many will stay open or fail to reopen when the furlough stops in October.
The anticipated doom story is that it will be mostly nurseries in areas of deprivation or those serving our poorest children.
I hope this will not be the case, these are the very children who need us most.
Lockdown gave us the chance to reflect on what our ‘new normal’ could be. It showed the power of slowing down life for children and staff, valuing good ratios and recognising childcare as part of the national infrastructure.
I do not want a return to the Early Years normality of funding pressures, lack of status, and unsustainable services. There is another way, so let’s not lose sight of it.
June O’Sullivan MBE is the CEO of the London Early Years Foundation. Visit June’s blog at leyf.org.uk/junes-blog or connect on Twitter at @JuneOSullivan.