'Utter despair': Childcare centres in crisis amid coronavirus battle

Kristine Tarbert
Senior Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer

LIVE: Coronavirus news and updates from around the world

Childcare centres are struggling. Photo: Getty

Childcare centres around Australia are in limbo as more and more parents withdraw their children, while they're told to keep the doors open amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to announce tighter lockdown restrictions and shutdowns on an almost daily basis, childcare providers and parents are feeling they’ve been forgotten.

Vice President of the Australian Childcare Alliance Nesha Hutchinson puts it bluntly.

“Words like ‘utter despair’ are not unfounded right now,” Nesha tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“We’ve got this situation where the government recognises childcare is one of the linchpins keeping the economy alive. It’s required to be able to keep people working because there is a big difference between having a primary aged child or a teenager at home, and being able to work from home, than having a toddler and just apologising for the work that’s not getting done.”

However, similar to the situation with schools, parents are being told to keep their children at home if they can.

“Parents are told to keep their kids at home which we understand,” Nesha says. “But staff are still turning up every day, no whinging or complaining, and they are there to support families. It’s what we do.

“But the issue is if parents are withdrawing their children, and we only have two children on a day, I still have to employ four staff for safety and other regulations.

“Centres don’t want to let down their community and the people that need them, but at some point we’re doing the sums and thinking this is not going to work.”

Childcare centres don't want to close but they can't keep going without help. Photo: Getty

Childcare subsidy causing parents to withdraw children

The main issue revolves around the Childcare Subsidy, says Nesha.

The Federal Government announced earlier this week it would be relaxing the childcare rules to help families if centres were forced to close.

That includes waiving the current obligation of childcare services to require a family to pay gap fees.

“By paying the Child Care Subsidy to services that are forced to close temporarily, we are providing financial support to businesses to pay their staff and remain viable so they can re-open when it is safe to do so,” Education Minister Dan Tehan said on Monday.

However, this only works if the centres are told to close. So at the moment, Nesha says providers are left with having to still charge parents the gap fee, which is causing more and more to withdraw their children from care.

“Providers are asking what do I do – I don’t want to shut down,” she tells us. “At the moment we’re being told to remain open and are not allowed to close voluntarily, because if we close voluntarily we get nothing from the government.

“It’s an awful sense of hopelessness coming over the sector.”

Parents are concerned by virus spread

The government cited multiple reasons for not ordering a closure of all schools in Australia, including concerns it would disrupt society and the educational progress of students more than is necessary. And it’s a similar reasoning for childcare.

But many parents are concerned that the social distancing principles that can be applied to schools are more difficult to adhere to with toddlers and babies.

“Have these people ever stepped foot in a childcare centre? How are the health issues the same as a school? Teachers aren’t forced to kiss and cuddle and wipe nappies of school kids all day,” one concerned parents said on Facebook.

“So you can only have 5 people at a wedding but 70 snotty kids sneezing and climbing on top of one another at daycare and there’s ‘no risk’,” another echoed.

“All the reasons schools are supposedly safe - they can practice social distancing, good hygiene etc - fly out the window when it comes to caring for babies/toddlers who are ALL OVER each other and the carers all day,” a third parent agreed.

Parents also said they had spoken to some of their local centres, and are concerned the businesses won’t be able to survive.

“The centres are bleeding money right now because everyone is withdrawing,” was one comment. “My local centres are saying they will not be able to survive. The government has promised them funding IF they close them. But isn’t addressing them directly in any of the rules they are setting.”

Another parent agreed, “What a farce. Just waiting for them all to go under.”

Just make the decision

Nesha stresses that parents shouldn’t be concerned about hygiene at childcare centres.

“The level of hygiene at childcare centres when it’s enforced is at the same level level as hospitals,” she says, adding there has not been a child attending care that has had the infection and transmission between children isn’t considered to be strong.

But Nesha says centres can’t continue to operate in this climate of uncertainty, and everyone, including staff members who might lose their jobs, or families who could lose their local centres, will pay the price.

“If centres have to close, fine we can talk things through with families and make a decision for that. No one wants to close, but we’re at the point just tell us what is happening now.”

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