Free child care during the coronavirus is a dream come true. But what will it cost our educators?


Free child care for all! Education and care services funded directly! The complex and annoying child care subsidy system with its myriad rules turned off!

The Prime Minister stating on national TV that early education and care is important for children and working families! Educators' and teachers' jobs saved!

It's amazing what a pandemic can do, isn't it?

What were once pipe dreams of advocates for young children's education and care, and the people who provide it, is now reality.

But my elation is tinged with sadness about some aspects of the plan, ostensibly designed to provide parents with free childcare so they can continue working through the coronavirus crisis, and for childcare services to survive.

What we are asking of educators is huge

I am sad because of the lack of recognition of what we are asking our educators and early childhood teachers to do.

The Prime Minister keeps saying the Government's health advice is that it's safe for children to go to attend education and care centres.

But what about the health and safety of the adults who have to work in those centres?

As more reports come in about children and babies catching COVID-19 — and in some countries dying from it — what we are asking of our educators in Australia is huge.

Social distancing is just not possible with a group of young children, and personal protective equipment is not being issued. As one educator asked me last night: "Are we expendable?"

Another posting on social media said he was living in a tent in the backyard because he is so afraid of catching the virus and passing it on to family members.

And educators do all of this for very low wages; some would make more money stacking shelves in supermarkets, in less risky conditions.

Not all jobs will be protected

I'm also sad about the mixed messages our leaders gave families this week.

"If you have a job in this economy then that is an essential job ... and it is important that all of those parents who have children ... get access to child care and those facilities will be there for them in the many months ahead," Mr Morrison said.

Families could easily understand this to mean they should start bringing their child into care centres daily. But we are still in the middle of the pandemic, still being told to practise physical distancing.

 

Every playground in the country has been closed to stop the virus spreading. So why is it OK for hundreds of children to play together at a childcare centre?

Services should be open for essential workers and vulnerable families. But others should consider keeping their children at home where possible.

I'm also sad because not all our education and care services will be protected, not all educators' and teachers' jobs will be safe.

Preschools and kindergartens that don't receive federal funding need state governments to step up.

One preschool educator from northern NSW told me she was in tears last night. She desperately wants to be able to keep her teachers employed so she can open her centre for the children that need to be there.

But she suspects their families will be forced to take up free child care elsewhere — she has to charge fees unless the states match what the Commonwealth has offered.

Educators are panicking

Local government has long run education and care centres. Goodstart, the largest not-for-profit provider, as a business with a turnover of more than $1 billion, needs to prove a cut in revenue of over 50 per cent to be eligible.

But unless councils' revenues drop by 30 per cent, they cannot access the JobKeeper supplement to keep educators and teachers employed.

The package has been designed so that everyone in the sector, including in-home care educators who care for vulnerable families and family day care educators who look after a handful of children in their own homes, will lose enough income to be eligible for the JobKeeper allowance.

 

But in the meantime, 50 per cent of the subsidies they received are gone, and they are no longer able to charge fees. These services and educators are panicking.

"We have been hung out to dry, sacrificed for the rest of the sector," one Queensland educator told me.

I suspect that they will be OK in the long run, once they fully understand how the rescue package works. But right now they are terrified.

All this is particularly hard for services paying high rents.

As one service director asked: "How can this be good for not-for-profit organisations that pay decent wages, have awful rents and still have a lot of children coming to them? We are getting 50 per cent of the subsidies we did and have to provide free childcare."

Maybe when the crisis is over, we can pay educators what they're worth

Still, I'm heartened that the Government seems to have recognised that they may have to make adjustments for some services.

I hope once the shock wears off, educators and teachers will be able to make this work.

It seems no one's job is safe anymore. And if most educators and teachers keep their jobs, it is recognition that what they do every day, by educating and building the brains of our next generation, is crucial work.

But we all need to thank them and hope that, like our medical staff, they do not pay a high personal price just for doing their jobs.

If this crisis has taught us one thing, it's how important their work is. And maybe when this is over, we can find a way to pay them what they are actually worth.


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