The return of early years settings has been a challenging time for many early years staff, it is important to take stock of the challenges we have yet to face and the lessons we have learnt in recent months.
With an increased number of children returning to their settings comes increased risk of infection. As we adapt to social distancing measures there is an added layer of complication for early years staff who are expected to look after babies and toddlers, which inevitably requires physical contact.
These circumstances ultimately put the workforce under increased levels of stress, anxiety and fear – for them and their families.
Understandably, staff across the workforce must protect their families’ health and wellbeing as well as their own.
Many of those who work in early years settings will be facing issues around their own personal childcare, their own health and wellbeing if they have pre-existing health conditions and even the risk of infecting their loved ones who might be vulnerable or living with health complications.
Early years practitioners are ‘stuck in the middle’ and seem to have been forgotten about again, although they are acutely aware of the physical care and attention necessary to support babies and toddlers and wish to continue to do their best for the families they support while recognising the potential risks for their own families.
At this time, it has never been more important for setting leaders to be present and supportive for their team.
Returning to work poses many challenges so it is important for staff to feel they can share their concerns constructively and get support and guidance from their employers. This ongoing dialogue with the team will ensure a transparency of decision making.
Employers should ensure that the correct procedures have been put in place and they are being followed consistently so staff and children are as safe as possible.
Similarly, setting leaders should ensure they are supportive and prepared to listen to the parents, carers and their families within their settings.
This will be particularly important in areas of deprivation, for families who have lost employment and are experiencing financial hardship.
Strong evidence has been presented during this time to show that Covid-19 does not affect all population groups equally, exposing particular inequalities in health and access to services in the UK’s BAME communities.
The pressure of supporting stressed and anxious families will inevitably take its toll on staff and contribute to an even more challenging work environment.
In addition, there is a need for further improvements in multi-agency working, to enable families to access the support they may need from other agencies, particularly if they have lost loved ones.
For those who own settings and for charities, these will have been uncertain times for their businesses. For many, the news of settings reopening has been welcomed, however, there are still questions about the number of children who will return.
Many parents still judge the situation to be too unsafe and are therefore choosing to keep their children at home. Parents and carers in families who do not use English as their first language may be unable to access information about how to keep their children safe.
As a result, there are questions about whether early years settings will have enough children in September. This will create challenges around staff numbers needed day-to-day, and generally, for the viability of settings.
Throughout Covid-19 there has been confusion about financial support for settings, and for practitioners themselves. With furlough support set to end in October, it is not clear whether the Government recognises that settings are still in an extremely precarious position.
The sector has been in a funding crisis long before Covid-19, and the reserves which many other sectors have been able to fall back on were not available for many in the early years sector.
Based on current funding rates, it seems inevitable that this will not only impact on the remuneration of the workforce, but also on settings’ abilities to meet core welfare requirements and ultimately their ability to keep their doors open.
In my role as manager of a children’s centre in Sheffield, I have seen first-hand the challenges that vulnerable children and families are facing and have been increasingly concerned about some of the young people I work with.
Working in an area of acute deprivation and diverse culture, there has been a significant increase in anxiety and worry among parents.
Along with my fellow practitioners, I have been frustrated by how vulnerable children have been monitored throughout the lockdown period.
Many children were already in vulnerable circumstances and this has been exacerbated by delays and confusion resulting in staff having to implement new strategies to support young children.
I have also seen signs of a sharp rise in domestic abuse, and therefore, practitioners are having to deal with complex issues beyond their usual job role.
The added pressures of social care workers having less direct contact and working remotely has increased pressure on early years staff and contributed to the challenging environments children are living in.
In addition, external services – such as speech and language therapists, have stopped their visits, adding further challenges for practitioners who are trying to fill this gap for young children.
This again results in staff having to work beyond their designated responsibilities to support young children and provide them with a stable and caring environment.
It is well known that early years staff are vastly underpaid and experience a huge amount of pressure, even in normal circumstances.
Many tolerate the overwhelming pressure and underfunding in the sector because of the personal reward they get from being a crucial part of the workforce that provides play, education and childcare for young children and so allows people across the country to work.
However, at this time, it appears that the rewarding and fulfilling part of their job is lessened and they are having to cope with immense pressure and job uncertainty in the face of Covid-19.
The Government must put in place appropriate provision and funding to support the early years workforce, to ensure that the sector can continue to provide a much-needed national service which protects young children and allows their families to return to work and to ‘normal life’.
The Early Years sector faces significant change and challenge in the face of COVID-19, for the sector as a whole but also for practitioners on an individual level in adapting to their daily lives.
Effects of the pandemic on the Early Years Workforce include damaging staff wellbeing, ensuring strong and confident setting management and offering care which safeguards and enhances children’s wellbeing.
The Early Years Workforce Commission has been set up to address the ongoing challenges that the workforce faces, and devise workable and effective solutions which can be implemented to ensure that the sector is highly valued, well paid and satisfied in their current roles and broader careers.
In this article we have looked at the ways COVID-19 puts at risk these key elements from being embedded to ensure sustainable and high-quality child care is available for all young children. To find out more about the Commission, visit our twitter, @EYWC2020.
Dr Sherron Curtis is TACTYC’s vice-chair and member of the Early Years Workforce Commission. TACTYC promotes and advocates the highest quality professional development for all early years educators in order to enhance the educational well-being of the youngest children. For more information visit tactyc.org.uk.