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.
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.