OPINIONSocietyMarch 19, 2020

Covid-19: An urgent need to enable voluntary absence from ECE


The Ministry of Education must clarify its support for voluntary withdrawal of children from early education and care. And to ensure immediate financial support for staff, businesses and community organisations, writes Dr Mike Bedford, a specialist in health and wellbeing in early childhood education.

The Covid-19 event really has no precedent. We’ve never had a situation in which a disease as serious as this goes global so rapidly, or a situation that puts many countries or states into lockdown. This means that governments and public health agencies are in new territory, constantly drawing on every piece of available information to make good decisions.

The decision to all but close new Zealand’s borders was absolutely the best move, and the government’s focus on financial support is really good, but we’re not out of the woods yet.

One of the next questions is: should we next move to close early childhood centres or schools?

Early childhood centres are by far the highest risk gatherings for disease transmission that we have in our communities, followed by schools. ECE centres have routinely produced outbreaks of viral infections. The problem is that closing them will add serious stress to many parents, as they could no longer work.

Taking children out of ECE or school is OK if you have family support to care for your children, but many parents don’t have this. Many parents now rely on holiday programmes and after-school care just to keep their jobs. With massive damage to New Zealand’s tourism industry and other industries, we already have serious unemployment to deal with. The requirement of self-quarantine for arrivals has enabled New Zealand to avoid, at least temporarily, the need for drastic social measures like school and ECE closure.

Unfortunately, our regulations for early childhood centres mean that many of these environments are seriously overcrowded, with inadequate hand washing facilities, and crowded sleep rooms with poor ventilation (or no ventilation). Children in ECE can be at an age where they are constantly touching and mouthing surfaces and objects. In many centres there are way too many children and too few teachers. Children need hugs and cuddles, and babies need to be held. Social distancing is not workable in ECE.

For that reason the Ministry of Education urgently needs to support voluntary absence from ECE.

For early education and care, it makes absolute sense for those parents who are in a position to keep their children home to do so, to reduce pressure on already stretched teachers.

The Ministry of Education urgently needs to clarify its support for voluntary withdrawal of children from early education and care. There is currently a lot of confusion and worry in the ECE sector around financial support and leave.

The ministry must ensure immediate financial support for teachers and other staff, and for ECE businesses and community organisations. Teachers need to be able to take paid leave regardless of whether they have any sick leave left. Support for teachers must absolutely not be left as an employment relationship decision (as has been the case historically).

Some ECE businesses and community organisations are already on the edge financially, due to funding issues, even without Covid-19. Parents who take children out of ECE because of Covid-19 should not be made to pay any penalty.

See also: Mike Bedford – Covid-19: Simple tips for teachers in schools and early education

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