Confusion over funding, a lack of government support and fears over continued working without being a vaccine priority have been aired by nursery bosses.
Yesterday (January 4) Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced schools and colleges would close, except for vulnerable and key worker children, but said nurseries will remain open. In the March lockdown nurseries were closed to all except keyworker and vulnerable children.
However, there is uncertainty over financial support and unhappiness that despite being classed as key workers, nursery staff do not feature on the priority categories for the covid vaccine.
During the autumn term 2020, the government provided funding to nurseries, pre-schools and childminders for ‘free childcare’ places based on pre-Covid attendance levels – however, this support is being removed this month.
There are calls from nursery bodies, such as the Early Years Alliance, for the Department for Education to reinstate early entitlement funding support for early years providers during the spring term.
They say lockdown will result in a major reduction in the demand for childcare, hitting incomes and bringing uncertainty over viability.
The Unison union is calling for nurseres to be closed to all except vulnerable and key worker children and also wants priority for vaccination and mass testing with employees should not be expected to go into work until these safety measures are put in place.
Fiona Crawford runs Helter Skelter nursery in Broadstairs and says it is an issue she is also going to raise a petition for.
Fiona, 61, has been at the helm of her nursery for more than 6 years – prior to that she ran a soft play centre – and says she is now facing a loss of income, reduced attendance and safety concerns for herself and her employees.
The mum-of-one said: “We are being given mixed messages. Firstly, we are being told to stay open but if attendance is only 30-40% that means we lose 60% income and how do I then afford to pay my staff? We can charge families a month’s notice but morally we can’t do that if we are not providing a service so then that income is lost too.
“We need some level of funding. Nurseries seem to be in a subset, they are not being included anywhere. We are not schools and education, apparently, so need to open to everyone but it is very difficult to know what to do.
“I have a fantastic team but we rank nowhere for vaccination. We are expected to be critical workers and just carry on but we can’t use PPE despite being with some of our children for up to 10 hours a day.
“We have to get this new covid mutation down but as a nursery worker there are concerns about health.
“The safety of staff, children and their families is absolutely essential and is such an enormous worry. We should be on the vaccination priority list.”
Fiona says a lack of clarity over income for government funded nursery places also places strain on the business, making life uncertain for her and her 10 staff.
She said: “I’m concerned about the future of nursery businesses. It will not be sustainable if school nurseries are closed but still get their funding but private nurseries take funded children but do not fall into the same category. Even if we furlough staff we do not get the 80%, it has been around 53% (due to being based on the percentage of private income rather than government funded places).
“Now because we don’t know about funding I can’t plan anything or make decisions. I have full staff at the moment but this uncertainty means they can’t plan either. They know I will do everything to safeguard the business and their jobs but they do not know how much money they will get in the meantime.
“We are lucky that we have such a good relationship with all our families and they want us to keep going but it is very difficult.”
Fiona has set up a petition asking for nursey workers to be included in the priority vaccination list and is waiting for that to go live.
Alliance talks and union demands
The Early Years Alliance was due to meet with the Government today to discuss issues around covid and the sector.
UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “Keeping nurseries and other pre-schools open puts staff and communities at risk.
“Social distancing is impossible with young children and the government has yet to publish the scientific evidence to justify nurseries being treated differently to schools.
“The decision seems to have been taken with little regard to the health and safety of employees.
“Ministers must treat nurseries the same as schools, as in the first lockdown. Staff must be a priority for vaccinations and mass testing.”
The Department for Education says Early Years setting are low risk for staff and children. Government guidance issued in December, says that from this month Early Years settings should return to receiving funding for ‘entitled hours delivered’, ie children who attend. During summer and autumn terms last year they had been receiving funding for children they expected to attend, not children who actually attended
Despite coming under local authority funding, the government makes the decisions about how and to whom it is paid not Kent County Council or its The Education People company.