Scottish Government regulations introduced as part of ‘Phase One’ measures to move out of lockdown, allowed fully outdoor childcare providers and at-home childminders to open from yesterday - however, institutions say there are still details which need “ironing out”, including how to make nurseries financially viable while adhering to social distancing regulations and maintaining staff ratios to the number of children attending the nursery.
A group of managers believed to include most outdoor nursery operators in the country, alongside outdoor play body Thrive Outdoors, on Tuesday submitted a paper to the Scottish Government raising further questions over the details of safely opening nurseries in the coronavirus pandemic.
This comes as a union called for an emergency government bailout of the childcare industry akin to the financial help given to transport networks, warning that the sector is on the “brink of collapse”.
The TUC said financial aid is needed so childcare providers can continue to offer the levels of care they were providing before the pandemic, allowing nurseries, childminders, breakfast and after school childcare and holiday schemes to remain open with social distancing measures in place.
The framework for reopening outdoor childcare settings set out by the Scottish Government on Monday, stated that it is “not appropriate for young children to maintain the models of physical distancing that would be suitable for older children in a school setting” and said that instead, children should be in groups of no more than eight, working with the same staff member. Each of those groups should be socially distanced - ie two metres apart - from other groups.
It added that any time spent indoors, such as during meet up or drop off, should be kept to an “absolute minimum” in order to reduce risk of spread of infection.
Sarah Lotto, manager of Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery in Fife, said: “Many of the outdoor Scottish nursery managers have come together to review the guidance and as yet, we (the Secret Garden) are not ready to reopen.
“We are still in the process of finalising details and need to clarify a few things before we can reopen. The general feeling is that we want to reopen as soon as possible, but we must ensure that we are able to do so in a way that is safe, effective and financially sustainable for the nursery. We don’t know how long it is going to take to iron out these details.
“We want to offer spaces to our regular children as well as keyworker families and support the transition process for our little ones who are going into P1 in August.”
There are around 30 outdoor nurseries currently operating in Scotland, however only five - in Fort William, Elgin, Ullapool, Oban and Perthshire - remained open to cater for key worker children during the Coronavirus crisis.
Rachel Cowper, programme manager for Thrive Outdoors, said: “There are a couple of things that we are still waiting for the government to clarify, mainly in relation to ratios of staff to children. Depending on that decision, there will be implications in terms of how the nurseries manage the day, how long the nursery day can be and the finance side of things.”
She added: “There have been a lot of discussions going on about how the guidance can be interpreted and applied. As a group we decided we wanted to do the right thing for the kids so we would wait until we were ready.”
The TUC report warned that as a result of the pandemic, some nurseries will not reopen due to financial collapse, while other childcare settings will only open on reduced hours or with fewer places to enable social distancing.
It also warned that NHS tracing systems of contacts of people who are have Coronavirus may require childcare providers and schools to shut down at very short notice following a local outbreak of Coronavirus.
Meanwhile, it said, the bulk of childcare while schools have been shut during the Coronavirus outbreak has fallen to mothers, meaning some have had to leave their jobs to care for their children. It warned that the situation could “potentially reverse decades of progress women have made in the labour market” and increase the gender pay gap – as well as having a damaging impact on national economic productivity.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Our childcare sector is on the brink of collapse – and it’s putting women’s jobs on the line. If childcare places disappear, women will be pushed out of the workforce.
“Women workers are bearing the brunt of this crisis, both on the frontline and at home. Mums have picked up the majority of childcare while nurseries and schools have been closed – and many have had to sacrifice work hours and pay to do so.”
She added: “The government can’t stand by while mums are forced out of their jobs. Childcare is necessary if we are going to work our way out of this economic crisis and stop the misery of mass unemployment. If we’re all in this together, nurseries desperately need government cash to stay open.”
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