Many childcare providers are struggling now to plan for the future, at a time when the care of children demands certainty says the chairwoman of the National Community Childcare Forum (NCCF), Marie Daly.
Ms Daly has broadly welcomed the new Government grants and funding streams for Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare services (ELC and SAC), as the Forum announced details of a new survey of service providers carried out in collaboration with the Association of Childhood Professionals and the National Childhood Network.
Carried out before the announcement of Government funding for the childcare sector in recent days, the results make for interesting reading and beg the question as to whether the funding package will alleviate the current crisis in childcare.
In considering the impact of the package of funding, Marie Daly also acknowledges the intensive work and commitment of Minister Zappone and her Department in securing the funding package, and their work to put supports in place for services to reopen.
However, the NCCF chairwoman also acknowledges that service providers, who had to pay rents or mortgages as well as utility bills, in spite of services being closed, still face uncertainty and the accrual of significant debts.
The survey highlights that many providers do not know if staff will return, or if enough families will need, want, or be able to afford their childcare service in the future.
Providers need a significant number of families to return to fully cover staff and other costs.
In the survey, service providers, both private and community, have said that the maintenance of existing Tusla ratios of children to early years staff is welcome, and will help support the viability of services.
The introduction of a 'pod system' whereby groups of children will remain in the same group, in the same indoor and outdoor space, with the same early-years staff is also welcome.
This system will help providers and staff to manage potential cross-infection and contact tracing.
However, the advice from health experts to keep the size of children’s groups as small as possible has a cost implication for the staffing of services.
While the Temporary Wages Support Scheme (TWSS) will continue, providers will be obliged to top-up each staff salary to a required amount.
The ability to do this will depend on the number of parents who use the service. The recent survey highlights provider fears that many parents may decide that their child or children should not return to services until September, or not at all.
The results of a survey carried out by the Forum, prior to the funding package being announced by Government, illustrates the many additional concerns childcare providers had. 93% said that they would face financial difficulty in reopening their service on June 29 following compulsory closures of services due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
2% of childcare operators surveyed said they would not re-open at all, following the recent prolonged closure. These providers alone represent 1,699 fewer childcare places immediately.
A further 52% anticipate severe financial difficulties, with fears for the viability of their operation.
Health implications for staff and children were also a concern for 78% of respondents, with 55% saying they would support Covid testing for staff, before reopening, while 72% believe priority testing for staff developing Covid 19 symptoms is essential.
With the uncertainty regarding the number of children returning to services, 64% of respondents expressed concern about having to cut staff hours, and 38% fear having to make redundancies.
The potential impact of the widespread shift to working from home on the childcare sector has yet to be seen, the research co-ordinators say.
61% of respondents were also uncertain as to whether their staff would or could return to employment within their service, should the number of children require their return.
The survey of Tusla registered childcare service providers accounted for more than 150,000 individual childcare places, representing around 100,000 families countrywide. The complete spectrum of services, both private and community, was canvassed.
Denise McCormilla, CEO of NCN, the National Childhood Network said the increasing requirements and responsibilities of childcare provision need to be recognised more, and the right policies devised and implemented by the new Government.
“We need to adequately support a crucial service on which Ireland’s economic development depends; one which also provides vital support for families, as well as enhancing children’s overall development in early childhood.
“While investment has been made available by successive Governments, it has not been sufficient to fully do what is required to secure the provision of affordable, accessible, sustainable, high-quality services.
“The research is clear, investment in high-quality early years care and education services, provides a highly significant return for Government and taxpayers.”
“Makeshift solutions do not reflect the complexity and myriad of different services that childcare provision entails” says Marian Quinn, chairwoman of the Association of Childhood Providers (ACP).
“Until the Government grasps that reality they will continue to fail to meet parents and society’s needs adequately.
"The current Government formation talks are tense and laboured, and yet the big headline concerns relate to farmers, animal exports, carbon tax emissions, issues in the US and Palestine.
"With all due respect to environmentalists, the farmers and human rights activists, they and all the political parties need to recognise that the safety, health, wellbeing, learning and development of the children of Ireland, as well as support for their parents and families, are of even greater importance”, she continued.
“Increased debt and unsustainable services, paired with health and staffing concerns, is not a good service delivery model.
"Childcare providers and their staff deliver a public service on behalf of the Government and require proper support to ensure a service that is safe for everyone and fit for purpose”.
“A totally new funding model that encompasses the many different forms of childcare in Ireland is needed now more than ever, concluded Marie Daly.
The next few days will be crucial, as service providers come to understand if the new funding supports are adequate for them to reopen, the survey co-ordinators say.
The funding streams will determine if the crisis in the sector has been alleviated, at least in the short term, or if it is still in crisis and unable to function properly.