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As unions call on the government to close early years education settings in line with schools to protect staff and contain the spread of coronavirus, nursery staff report feeling abandoned and scared to go to work. Some councils such as Brighton and Hove, and Salford, have taken the decision to close council-run nurseries. Three nursery teachers speak about their concerns.
‘Parents are frightened but if the kids don’t come in, some won’t get fed’
Jan Stillaway, 50, the deputy headteacher of a maintained nursery school in London, is exasperated.
“We are on a knife edge. I’ve currently got seven staff members with Covid. A number of staff are or were very ill and have needed hospital treatment. Their families have also been ill. This week we had to close our year three and four provisions for all children because of a staff case. One parent said we were milking the pandemic.
“We all know we are not safe at work, and we all accept it. Even though staff members are scared, they are also committed to deliver care. But not at a ridiculously high risk. In our nursery class we have 18 members of staff, because we have so many kids with special needs. In no other circumstances would it be allowed to gather with that many people.”
Stillaway fears the government’s decision to keep nurseries open for all children could impact some of the most vulnerable children the most. “We are being forced to open our nursery to everyone, not just to key worker and vulnerable kids,” she said.
“The majority of our families are BAME or from a deprived background. We’ve written to 120 parents and around half of them said they feel so frightened that they don’t want to come in. But 40% of our kids are on benefits, and if they don’t come in, they are at risk of not being fed, since the government isn’t giving food vouchers because nurseries are open. It’s a moral outrage.”
‘I’m scared to kiss my children goodnight’
Louise, 46, from Kent, is a mother of four and assistant headteacher at a nursery with 70 children attached to a school.
“I feel frustrated with the government, who say schools are vectors for the disease but also say it is safe for over 70 people in my nursery to mix in one room, saying there is no risk,” she said.
Louise has a history of pneumonia and bronchitis and is classed as critically vulnerable, but still goes in to work every day. “The government has said that teaching staff who are clinically vulnerable can still go to work, which means they can’t be furloughed if they are public sector workers.
“I worry daily about the risk to my own health from working in close contact with so many young children – not to mention their parents who rarely socially distance when they drop their children off.
“I am frightened to kiss my own children goodnight over my exposure to Covid and worry that with my health history I may be hospitalised if I contract it.”
‘I’m the only staff member who hasn’t had Covid’
Jessie*, 31, who works in a nursery attached to a primary school in Wandsworth, south London, is outraged over what she considers a near impossible situation for early years providers and some families.
“I feel completely let down by the government and local authority,” she said.
“Nursery staff are being used in a political and economic decision and I feel sad and angry about it. The guidance from the government in the first lockdown was vague and inconsistent and it’s the same this time. About 90% of our children are currently attending. In my nursery we aren’t even allowed to organise bubbles, as guidelines say teaching standards would suffer – we’ve got 40 children together.
“It feels dangerous to go to work and mix 40 families when all the hospitals are at crisis point. In the week before Christmas three nursery staff members tested positive. I am now the only member of staff who hasn’t had Covid. The government says nurseries are safe places, but they’re not, no matter how often you say it.”
Jessie is particularly concerned about official guidelines stating nursery workers shouldn’t wear PPE. “The guidance says wearing masks might have a negative impact on the children, it’s just wild. Thankfully my school allows us to wear whatever PPE we want.
“Some families are too scared to send their children in, and these kids now get nothing, as we’re not allowed to do online teaching parallel to our other duties. This could all have been organised, if we had had more time. But the government made the announcement four days before we went back.
“Obviously I’d be happy to teach key worker and vulnerable children, as we did during the first lockdown. But having the whole nursery class there seems needlessly risky. I can’t actually believe it.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Early years settings remain low risk environments for children and staff and there is no evidence that the new variant of coronavirus disproportionately affects young children. Keeping nurseries and childminders open will support parents and deliver the crucial care and education for our youngest children.”
*Not her real name
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘Risky, vague, inconsistent’: nursery teachers in England lament Covid strategy | Coronavirus