Early childhood directors carry exhausting loads during the pandemic

Early childhood directors are carrying an exhausting load during COVID-19, even beyond major outbreaks: Research

early childhood

Educators are still feeling the effects of hypervigilance, despite no COVID-19 outbreaks in their community for over a year, according to the preliminary results of a joint study by Dr Marg Rogers from the University of New England, Associate Professor Wendy Boyd from Southern Cross University and Professor Margaret Sims from Macquarie University. Dr Rogers shares some such findings below.

The pandemic has caused major disruption in most workplaces. As frontline workers, early childhood educators have faced enormous challenges during lockdowns and faced a continuously changing landscape.

During the national lockdown in March 2020, enrolments in their services fell to around 10-15%, meaning casual educators lost their jobs. While some early childhood services were able to eventually get Jobkeeper, others did not qualify because they were part of larger organisations, such as universities. Childcare and early childhood education were also the first services to lose Jobkeeper

Directors were trying to manage staff welfare because many of the staff had to wait a long time for Jobkeeper or Jobseeker welfare payments from Centrelink. Directors were not only concerned for their welfare but also worried that they may lose their reliable pool of casuals when the bulk of their families returned. 

Parents were sharing their fears about the virus and asking directors for advice about whether they should keep their children at home. Meanwhile, directors felt they didn’t have the information they needed to answer this, because the situation was constantly changing, and medical advice was shifting. 

Directors found themselves withdrawing from teaching to write work safety plans and other workplace plans to keep their permanent staff employed. They felt pressured to constantly show governing bodies and boards what the staff were doing in terms of working with children face to face and online, taking part in professional development and developing online resources for families and children.  

During the initial lockdown, a director with a supportive managing board gave permanent educators each one paid day at home each week. During this day they were to work on professional development for half a day and to rest for half a day for their wellbeing. 

Directors also said they spent enormous amounts of time checking state government websites and departmental education websites for up to date health information. Interestingly, the department responsible for their accreditation would only send out information well after it was available on the other two websites. 

Media coverage was a source of frustration to staff, with many stories focussing on hero worship of some essential workers, such as medical staff, while ignoring other essential workers, such as early childhood educators who were afraid for their welfare, and that of their families as they went to work each day. Directors were concerned for elderly and Indigenous staff, especially. Despite being essential workers, their pay didn’t change. 

Compounding this, the Australian Government’s announcement that all childcare would be free for some time meant a large and sudden influx of new families who normally didn’t access childcare. The services needed the enrolments to stay afloat. This meant staff had to suddenly get to know families, increasing educator’s fears. They were frightened of where the families had come from and if they had been in contact with the virus. The new children were also unsettled because they were not used to childcare. 

Directors suddenly needed to have huge contact lists on their phones to reach all families, staff, cleaning staff, departments, board members or management bodies and other government bodies to let them know if an outbreak occurred. One director said she had moments where she felt ‘panicked if she thought she didn’t have everyone’s numbers with her wherever she went’.   

Directors expressed that they often felt exhaustion during the pandemic. They said they were still constantly checking websites and felt hyper-vigilant. 

Directors reported that parents were very appreciative of what the educators did for the children online via video conferencing, websites and apps. Some even offered to pay fees when their children were not attending if it meant the service would stay open when the service was losing money.  

There was a difference in what parents seemed to want in terms of how often they wanted to engage with the service and the types of connection they wanted. Educators were expected to suddenly learn how to use new technology to communicate with families, and even with each other in socially distant staff meetings. Interestingly, some of these practices have stayed in place. 

Families and children gradually returned after the major lockdown. Parents noticed the new changes for security and social distancing took some time to get used to. Some parents were fearful of the new families because they were unsure if they had come from areas where there were virus outbreaks. Educators had to assure parents the new families were known to the staff and were local. 

In one service, children returning were excited to see each other but took some time to play with each other again. They had become used to playing by themselves, so it took educator scaffolding to support joint play episodes. 

Directors said they were proud of the way their families and educators adapted to the changes. They said they were proud to be part of the early childhood education and care, and felt a greater urgency to speak up for the sector. They were pleased that the families let them know how much they were appreciated after having the children at home for so long. 

You can read more about Marg’s research about educator professionalism, and the effects of neoliberal policies in early childhood education.

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