The Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business sets out the plan for re-opening of Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare (ELC and SAC) services. This 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. To support this work, I have convened and chair an Advisory Group, that comprises eight organisations representing the ELC and SAC sector, one representing the childminding sector and a trade union representative. Intensive engagement with this Group has been underway for several weeks now.
On 29 May I received Government support for the initial plans for re-opening ELC and SAC services under Phase 3 (29 June). The plan for re-opening is guided by the detailed public health guidance specific to ELC and SAC services received from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) and noted by NPHET.
The phased reopening will seek to meet the needs of the increasing range of parents and guardians who are returning to work, and prioritise the needs of vulnerable children who need ELC and SAC on child welfare grounds.
It is intended that from 29 June, ELC and SAC services will be accessible by:
- Children of health and social care workers, other frontline workers, early ELC and SAC practitioners themselves, and parents who need access to ELC and SAC in order to return to work. In the first instance, places will be available to families from these categories who previously used the ELC and SAC services.
- Vulnerable children, including children sponsored under the National Childcare Scheme (for example, children in the protection process and children who are homeless) along with children funded through legacy ELC and SAC funding schemes who are experiencing poverty, disadvantage or child welfare issues.
- Children with disabilities, including those preparing to start school in September.
- Other children previously registered in ELC and SAC services on March 12, whose parents continue to need ELC and SAC and who were assured that they would retain their place through conditions attached to the DCYA Temporary Wage Subsidy Childcare Scheme.
- Subject to local availability of places, children who did not previously use early ELC and SAC services and whose parents are now seeking a place.
When services reopen on 29 June, children will play together in set groups of children and adults in ‘play pods’. The intention is that the same staff and children stay together each day, through the day, as far as possible. The purpose of ‘play-pods’ is to limit the number of people a child has contact with, to facilitate tracing, and to support close, positive interactions between children and their adult caregivers, like in a key-worker system. he play pod model recognises that physical distancing is not possible with young children, nor may it be in their best interests. This system will also reduce the amount of contact adults have with each other.
In the best interests of children and parents, children should, as far as possible, be enabled to return to the childcare service they attended pre-COVID-19. Given the changed model of interaction and the time lapse since children last attended, it is important that there is as much continuity as possible for children. In light of the necessary changes, parents may also feel more reassured by placing their children in the care of childcare practitioners with whom they already have a relationship. Familiarity with other children attending the service and their parents may also help with the settling-in phase.
Officials in my Department are undertaking primary research which is currently being rolled out in order to help us forecast supply of, and demand for ELC and SAC places from 29 June and beyond. I will update the Deputy when these data have been returned from ELC and SAC providers and analysed. To begin with however, it is worth noting that in a normal year, just 40% of all ELC and SAC operate over the entire summer (approximately 1800 of the existing 4500 services).
In terms of funding for the ELC and SAC sector, I have already put in place a number of supports to assist ELC and SAC providers in this time. The Temporary Wage Subsidy Childcare Scheme (TWSCS), launched by my Department on 15 April, builds on the wider provisions by Government and also recognises the unique place and importance of the ELC and SAC sector. It provides funds for staffing and overhead costs, while ensuring that parents are not charged fees for the duration of the scheme.
As part of pre-existing sustainability funding, financial supports are available for community services presenting with sustainability issues following a financial assessment by Pobal. My Department has begun to consider whether this sustainability funding can be extended to private services during the pandemic.
These sector-specific supports are complemented by the range of supports across Government, many of which can also be availed of by ELC and SAC providers. This includes grants and loans for small businesses, advice and support from Local Enterprise Offices, the cancellation of commercial rates for a period, and a re-opening grant for small and medium enterprises. Further information on these supports is available from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation.
There remain 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 re-opening 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. Detailed planning and costing of proposals is ongoing to provide a sustainable and viable funding model which can be applied for the initial phase of reopening of ELC and SAC service, through to operating at full capacity. This funding model is subject to agreement with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
I am very conscious of the importance of ELC and SAC for children’s positive development and in terms of supporting the economy as we move beyond this crisis. I am minded always of these principles in the planning being done across Government, led by my Department, for the safe and sustainable re-opening of ELC and SAC services.