Experts warn childcare will be the next COVID frontline as sector calls for safety plan

Experts warn childcare will be the next COVID frontline as sector calls for safety plan

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Childcare is expected to be the next frontline in the COVID-19 pandemic as adult vaccination rates rise and advocates are calling for a plan to handle outbreaks, keep services afloat and ensure children get the early learning they need after two disrupted years.

Children aged four and under make up about 6 per cent of the population, but they’ll account for 19 per cent of unvaccinated Australians once the nation reaches the 80 per cent vaccination benchmark.

When vaccines are approved for children aged between five and 11 – which could be as soon as the end of November – high takeup rates would mean younger children will make up almost two-fifths of the unvaccinated cohort.

Early childhood advocates are calling for more consideration of how to prevent and deal with COVID outbreaks in the sector.Credit:iStock

Maximilien de Courten, an epidemiologist and head of Victoria University’s health and education think tank the Mitchell Institute, says the nature of the pandemic and vaccination rollout has meant “we are basically pushing the virus towards the younger ages”.

“That’s not because the virus would have changed or found a preference, but rather because we were so successful covering with vaccinations, first, the oldies and then going down in the ages,” he said.

But while there has been a lot of planning and discussion around safety measures at schools, there has been little similar examination of childcare settings, attended by 1.3 million children.

A new report from the Mitchell Institute finds the modelling used to inform the national and state reopening plans hasn’t considered the differences between school and childcare settings or how under-fives behave and interact.

“Because the kids are younger, obviously, it’s much more difficult to really implement face masks and those other recommendations which you can do with adults, and increasingly we do in schools,” Professor de Courten said.

For example, schools have received guidance and government assistance to ensure there is good ventilation in classrooms. The report says childcare centres should get that same help with funding and governments need to make sure there is a co-ordinated and sector-wide approach.

Another measure, cohorting, is nearly impossible in childcare where children might be in a different room with different staff every day – quite unlike a Year 4 class with one teacher in one classroom.

Paediatrician Sharon Goldfeld, who heads up the population health section at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, said while data showed transmission in childcare was mostly between adults, the sector still needed special consideration.

“It should be part of the recommendations that come from the AHPPC. In the same way they’re going to make recommendations around schools, they should make recommendations around ECEC,” she said.

One area she thought needed guidance was the use of face masks for educators. It was sensible to keep them in the short term, especially while there were still wide community outbreaks such as in Victoria, but in the longer term “it’s not great for young kids to be surrounded by adults in masks”.

Thrive by Five chief executive Jay Weatherill said policy responses for the sector seemed to fall between the cracks of overlapping government responsibilities.

“There are a whole range of special considerations to under-fives, which we haven’t seen any evidence of being addressed at the moment in terms of the COVID response,” Mr Weatherill said.

During the pandemic’s early stages other sectors such as health and education were set up to weather it but the sector that nearly fell over was childcare.

The federal government stepped in with a package to keep services open, and has spent more than $3 billion on the sector during the pandemic. In the recent lockdowns, the Commonwealth has paid $234 million to support more than 6250 childcare services in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, and waived fees for parents where health orders don’t permit them to send their children to care.

Apart from the health considerations, Mr Weatherill points out many four-year-olds will have missed out on the 600 hours of preschool they’re entitled to and may need extra help in their first year of primary school to make up for it.

There are also funding questions if services are forced to close temporarily because of cases among staff.

Thrive by Five wants governments to develop an early-years COVID plan that guarantees support for children who missed out on learning during lockdowns, priority vaccinations for people working with young children, and an income guarantee for childcare services during lockdowns or times of uncertainty.

Australia’s children’s commissioner Anne Hollonds said young children had been overlooked in the thinking about what is needed during the pandemic and the reopening.

“Their learning can’t be replaced by Zoom, frankly,” she said.

“All of their learning happens in a relationship with somebody else, either at home with their family, or, of course, with other children and their educators in early childhood education. And many of them have missed out.”

But as lockdowns and restrictions lift and children head back to their usual care arrangements, Ms Hollonds said parents needed to help them feel safe again and manage their own anxiety.

“We’ve been through a really, really terrible time, the last 20 months, and there’s been a lot to be frightened about. And of course, we’re very protective of our youngest children,” she said.

“But I think that the best medical advice that I’ve been given is that all the adults need to get vaccinated.”

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