Global pandemic

COVID-19’s impact on early childhood education

IEU Organiser Lisa James was invited to join a webinar hosted by Education International, “Assessing and responding to the impact of COVID-19 on early childhood education”. She shares how teachers and unions around the world have risen to the challenge.

On 28 May this year, 459 participants from 50 countries took part in a webinar facilitated by Education International (EI) to enable education unions to discuss how early learning around the world has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and to explore options regarding the reopening of early childhood education services.

EI President Susan Hopgood said more than 1.5 billion students and 63 million teachers have been affected worldwide, with early childhood education services and schools closed in many countries, causing a significant transition to distance learning.

Unfortunately, this disadvantaged children without reliable access to the internet or devices and those with additional learning needs.


In Australia, the sector stayed open throughout the pandemic (including during periods of lockdown) and both government policy and rhetoric encouraged children’s attendance to support essential workers, allow parents to keep working, and to maintain sector viability.

With women comprising more than 96 per cent of the sector’s workforce and many earning some $30,000 a year less than teachers in primary schools, it is concerning that private providers and some not for profits stood down teachers and educators, or reduced their hours of work in response to falling attendance.

NSW Early Learning Centres: The Federal Government’s Child Care Relief Package included a subsidy of 50 per cent of daily fees up to $60 a day on condition that childcare fees were waived for all families. CCS centres demonstrating decreased turnover could also access the JobKeeper subsidy to assist in retaining employees.

This enabled employers to reduce the hours of work and direct employees receiving the subsidy to take their accrued annual leave, providing they retained a balance of two weeks. Some teachers reported having their hours reduced from full time to as few as eight hours per week, with others stating their employer had reduced their hours to equate to the $1500 per fortnight JobKeeper payment.

Free long daycare led to a resurgence in attendance concerns for vulnerable employees and the impossibility of social distancing, shortages in cleaning supplies and a lack of clear procedures for dealing with several families arriving to collect children at the same time. It was left to directors and providers to sort out these details in individual centres.

NSW Preschools: The NSW Government provided additional funding for preschools and announced attendance at preschool would be free to parents from Term 2 until the end of Term 4, prompting an increase in new enrolments and days of attendance for previously enrolled children.

Queensland and Northern Territory Kindergartens: Senior Industrial Officer John Spriggs reports that members were concerned about their personal safety, with social distancing impossible to enforce; added to this, some early childhood education employees are in a high risk category. In the initial stages of the crisis the IEU advised members of employer obligations to provide a safe working environment. The Queensland Government initially said that where a kindergarten was required to close due to the virus, funding would be maintained to assist in retaining employees. It subsequently provided a funding subsidy, so children could attend a community kindergarten at no cost for Term 2. This funding greatly benefited all kindergartens, their staff and the children they teach.

New Zealand

The sector closed during lockdown and introduced remote learning, providing children with resource packs including books and other educational materials. It reopened in stages and regulations were changed to increase the amount of space required per child, to limit access to some resources, and adults were required to physical distance.

The New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) provided online professional development and the union grew its membership in corporate for profit services. NZEI secured a salary increase of up to 9.6 per cent for early childhood teachers from July this year as a first step towards pay parity. More than 70 per cent of children had returned to the sector at time of the webinar.


In most provinces, the early childhood education and care sector was closed. The Standard Economic Health and Safety at Work Commission recommended physical distancing, enhanced hygiene practices and masks for teachers and educators. In provinces where the sector had reopened, there were concerns over lack of personal protection equipment for teachers.

At the time of the webinar, centres were operating with a reduced number of employees and teachers and educators were experiencing financial difficulty as a result.


Early childhood centres were closed for several weeks. Government and the union discussed reopening centres safely after ongoing advocacy from the union. Upon reopening, centres employed additional staff, reduced group sizes, introduced restrictions regarding parents entering the centre, and enhanced hygiene measures, including additional cleaning and hand washing. Positive outcomes included more employees dedicated to working with disadvantaged and vulnerable children.


Infection rates were high as the Chilean Government failed to heed World Health Organization guidelines. The early childhood education and care sector is highly privatised, leading to inequity of access, particularly for disadvantaged families. The government imposed eLearning on all sectors of education, which disproportionately affected children living in poverty without reliable access to the internet.

More countries

In Italy, Kosovo, Bahrain, Kurdistan, Benin, Gambia and Nigeria concerns included lack of access to devices and the internet, and teachers experiencing financial hardship as their workplaces closed for an extended period with limited or no government support available.

We continue to engage with our governments to make sure the interests of our members and children are taken into account when they come out with policies on COVID-19.

On reflection

Did the Australian Government do enough early enough? Did it provide adequate guidance to safeguard the health and safety of children, teachers and educators, particularly those with pre-existing conditions? Did it provide cleaning materials such as soap, hand sanitiser and disinfectant? Or was it just really fortunate that Australia’s geographical isolation and small population prevented an uncontrolled spread of the virus?

Australia will be dealing with the coronavirus fallout for a long time to come. Will the preschool sector remain viable when fee relief finishes at the end of Term 4? According to the Mitchell Institute, about 1.6 million Australians lost their jobs in the first week of April. The number of children in families experiencing employment stress has risen dramatically. Will families with reduced work hours require the same number of early childhood education and care hours as the economy recovers? Can these families still afford to pay fees? What will happen in 2021 when Activity Test requirements for early learning centres are reinstated?

Unions play a crucial role in assisting members to navigate this unprecedented situation. “The COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious negative impact on countries, communities, and education systems around the world and the ECE sector,” EI President Susan Hopgood said.

“Education International and all our member organisations, the unions and educators, have and continue to respond to this challenge.

“We continue to engage with our governments, with the authorities, to make sure the interests of our members and children are taken into account when they come out with policies on COVID-19. We should continue to speak up, to push our governments, to push the United Nations and intergovernmental organisations and education institutions to ensure the safety, health, and wellbeing of children and early childhood personnel and for a full recovery of this important sector when the crisis is over.”

The Mitchell Institute, Victoria University, COVID-19, employment stress and student vulnerability in Australia:
Download the Education International webinar report: