On Friday 1 May, the Government released its 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 and will be underpinned by the Government's Return to Work Safely Protocol, expert advice, available evidence and consultation with ELC and SAC stakeholder representatives and providers themselves.
The future stages of the Roadmap's reopening of ELC/SAC services are stated as follows:
Phase 3 (29 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 (20 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 phased reopening will enable sufficient time and planning 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 offering as smooth a 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 many of those identified by the Deputy. 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 13 May and I held follow up meetings on 15 and 19 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.
There are a number of key decisions to be made across Government that will impact significantly on the ELC and SAC sector, including the future of emergency measures such as the Revenue operated Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection operated Pandemic Unemployment Payment, and other business supports. The proposals for reopening ELC and SAC services necessarily interact with these schemes and so I will be relying on whole of Government plans, which impact the ELC and SAC sector.
It is my fervent hope that every ELC and SAC service around the country is currently considering how it can be part of helping Ireland get back to work, and how it can support children from June 29th in the very difficult circumstances they have experienced in recent months.
I hope the Deputy can appreciate that the issues raised are under consideration but that I cannot provide more detail at this time while proposals are in development. I will undertake to update the Deputy as soon as the work on reopening services is at a more advanced stage.