Niccole McDowell, or Nicci, is an early childhood teacher, early years learning advocate, and recently appointed Director of the community based Kurri Kurri Preschool in the Hunter Valley. Nicci has been a teacher at the preschool for the last ten years and stepped into the role of director in October 2019.
How Nicci keeps connected in early learning
Prior to working at Kurri Kurri, she spent time teaching in NSW public schools before moving to England to work with disadvantaged communities and refugee families in inner-city London schools.
Preparing for pandemic
Nicci says her experience as a new director, thrown straight into the deep end managing the local community impacts of the bushfires, helped prepare her and her preschool for the pandemic that was to come.
“We had to think fast,” said Nicci.
“We had to draw on our emergency planning, to have contact with emergency authorities and think very quickly day to day.”
Returning from the Christmas break, Nicci and the team had developed clear curriculum directions for how they were going to talk about the traumatic implications of the fires, what it meant for the country and the impact of that devastation.
“Then, obviously, the coronavirus came along and our curriculum direction had to change again really quickly.
“We wrote a social story, because we know young children respond well when we use their own language. We started talking about what they knew already, what they’d heard in the media and at home.
“And then all of a sudden we weren’t at preschool.”
The big shift
Nicci said her primary concern, alongside obvious community health and safety issues, was the impact that a pandemic was going to have on the lives of our young children.
“Some children only get one year at preschool, so I was worried about the impact of not being able to access our program because it’s so important for their development in those early years.”
It was obvious that the pandemic was going to have a major impact on how the team worked.
“We have a wonderful team here... we needed to really step outside our comfort zone and do our job differently.”
They quickly assembled a comprehensive risk assessment, putting children at the centre of their plans, as well as the staff, and implemented clear guidelines especially around hygiene and cleaning.
“Even though we had to work a little bit harder, and we had to work differently, I think the staff had peace of mind that we were drawing information from authorised agencies and we turned that information into strategies to keep ourselves and the children safe.”
While the preschool remained open for essential worker families, over 90 per cent of children were now playing and learning at home. Most families were already connected with the preschool through social media, proven an effective communication tool during the bushfires. Rather than adding to the burden of already stressed families by introducing another new communication method, they pivoted to a virtual classroom powered by Facebook.“We knew that our families were familiar with that and we knew that it had worked in the past... We didn’t introduce an app or some new process that they had to get their head around.”
After securing privacy and communicating expectations for the online classroom, to ensure families understood the preschool continued to operate professionally, the next big task was developing an ‘online learning framework’. Based around existing regulation frameworks, like the Early Years Learning Framework and the National Quality Standard, they built strategies that were relevant for an online classroom, interwoven with the code of ethics set out in the Early Childhood Australia statement on young children and digital technologies.
With that in place, staff were rostered onto the virtual classroom, as if rostered to one onsite. The rostered teams provided provisions for playing and learning at home, uploaded links to video content, as well as host periodic Facebook Live sessions.
“We would go Live at different times through the week so that children could see us, and the parents could facilitate communication between us and them. Families also then had the opportunity to upload the play and learning that was happening at home for us to see.
“Maintaining connections was our main thing.”
Advocating for support
As a community based preschool, there was a lot of uncertainty around what funding support was going to look like.
“It took a lot of advocacy. Personally, as the director of the preschool, I made contact with a lot of members of government, our local member, state and federal.”
Nicci says a lot of people, including even the federal member, didn’t realise that the federal government’s free childcare announcement wouldn’t include community based preschools. She has been continuing conversations with families and key members of the community about that lack of understanding and knowledge about what early years education can look like.
“What happens in those first 1000 days of a child’s life really impacts the trajectory of their learning.
“I worry that things will just go back to the way they were. In such a short amount of time some really big issues had to be understood, and some huge ethical understandings have to be put forward to shift that conversation from childcare to early education and care.”