I propose to take Questions Nos. 1128 and 1139 together.
On Friday 1st May, the Government released a Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business which sets out Ireland's plan for lifting COVID-19 restrictions through five phases. The reopening of Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare (ELC and SAC) services will be guided by this framework underpinned by expert advice, available evidence and consultation with ELC and SAC stakeholder representatives.
The future stages of the Roadmap's reopening of ELC/SAC services are as follows:
- Phase 3 (29th June), opening of crèches, childminders and preschools for children of essential workers in a phased manner with social distancing and other requirements applying.
- Phase 4 (20th July), opening of crèches, childminders and preschools for children of all other workers on a gradually increasing phased basis and slowly increasing thereafter.
The sector has many questions regarding how the Roadmap will be implemented to enable services to reopen. While the COVID-19 emergency called for overnight action on closures, it is my ambition that the roadmap for the phased reopening will enable services to reopen in an orderly, safe and sustainable manner. I would like to reassure providers, practitioners, parents and children that I will be doing my utmost to support the sector in assisting a smooth transition as possible to the phased and restricted reopening of ELC and SAC services.
My Department is currently working with the sector to answer the many questions that exist. This is complex work and must balance a number of important issues, including those mentioned by the Deputy around capacity. Informed by NPHET and public health guidance, consideration is being given to a range of these issues, including:
- Minimising the public health risk, especially given the difficulty of maintaining social distancing among young children and those caring for them,
- Ensuring the need for any restrictions to be consistent with young children’s well-being and development needs and for ELC and SAC provision at each phase to be child-centred
- Providing ELC for preschool children, meeting parental demand for ELC and SAC as the economy reopens, and meeting the commitment to retain places for families who paid for ELC and SAC before COVID-19, all while restricting capacity and thereby reducing adult-child ratios.
- Ensuring financial sustainability of the sector when capacity restrictions limit income and parents cannot afford to cover any higher costs with higher fees.
- Ensuring a sufficient number of qualified ELC and SAC practitioners, given likelihood of reduced adult-child ratios and existing challenges with recruitment and retention.
I am actively engaging with key stakeholders in the sector to make sure that the work on reopening services is informed by the practical reality across the country. I have established and Chair an Advisory Group that includes representatives chosen by the sector, specifically the Association of Childhood Professionals, Community Forum, Early Childhood Ireland, National Childhood Network, PLÉ and Seas Suas. The group also includes Tusla, Pobal, SIPTU and Childminding Ireland. The first meeting of this Advisory Group took place on 13th May and I held follow up meetings on 15th and 19th May. A schedule of weekly meetings has also been agreed.
The proposals for reopening which are in development will have due regard to Public Health guidance over the phases of easing of restrictions. I am conscious that the proposed timelines are subject to further NPHET advice, and decisions from Government.
My officials are engaging with Pobal about how and when they can undertake appropriate compliance inspections in the coming months. These discussions will take account of the public health situation and the phased approach to reopening described above. Following these discussions appropriate guidelines will be developed which will cover the compliance approach to be agreed with Pobal.
The Department of Education and Skills Inspectorate carry out education-focussed inspections on behalf of my Department. Officials in my Department will be liaising with the Department of Education and Skills in relation to the recommencing of these inspections.
I have requested Tusla to respond directly to the Deputies in relation to their questions on future inspections by Tusla’s Early Years Inspectorate.
My officials are liaising to ensure that the approach to these inspections is coordinated.