On 5 January the government announced that all primary and secondary schools would be shutting, but that nurseries would be going ahead with business as usual. Such a move has left nursery workers out in the cold, feeling exceedingly troubled about the safety of their nursery settings.
Unions have demanded for nurseries to be shut, as well as a 100,000 signature-strong petition. Professor Chris Whitty emphasised the low risk of the virus to children following the announcement, stating that they were keeping nurseries open to “allow people who need to go to work or need to do particular activities to do so”. However, such a policy seemingly disregards nursery workers themselves and the risks posed to them through staying at work.
The government’s decision has been so highly criticised because of the nature of early years work. Nursery workers do not have priority for coronavirus testing or vaccines, and yet is one of the only professional settings that involve dealing with bodily fluids on a daily basis without full PPE. Further to this, masks are not required in nurseries as they can frighten the children, and close contact is necessary in the job in order to support and care for the children.
To this end, many early years staff are questioning why nurseries are supposedly ‘safer’ than schools.
I don’t understand why nurseries are open over schools. “School children are a lot older and can fend for themselves more than nursery children” – Lauren*, nursery practitioner based in Cambridgeshire
For example, older children, when coming into school, can be asked whether they feel ill. Children at nursery on the other hand cannot always use verbal communication and have to rely on their parents or the nursery practitioner to make the judgement call. In addition, when school children are ill they can wipe their noses and wash their hands themselves, whereas adults working in nurseries are expected to deal with these bodily fluids throughout the day. This is creating increased concern amongst workers who may be vulnerable themselves or fearing what they could potentially be bringing home to loved ones.
It is therefore becoming more and more challenging for nursery workers to offer the same service to these young children under such conditions.
“We have to clean the whole room, change all of our clothes, and also change all of the children’s clothes. This is a stressful operation, especially as it often stresses the children too, who then want a cuddle but we can’t do this until they are changed” – Maria*, a 23-year-old nursery worker, explains the process at her nursery if a child has to be sent home after showing Covid-19 symptoms
The nurseries themselves are doing everything they can to support their workers. In many settings, it is mandatory to wear masks everywhere around the nursery other than in their allocated rooms. In addition, nurseries have created bubble systems where staff and children are only allowed to work in one room and not mix with other rooms in the nursery. It is hoped this will reduce the risk of transmission.
Brighton and Hove council have effectively taken matters into their own hands, choosing to close all council-run nurseries in the area. They are only open to key workers’ children, as during the first UK lockdown. Unfortunately, private nurseries simply cannot afford to restrict capacity like this. In the first lockdown, nurseries were given financial support from the government, but under the new rules this same support is not on offer. This forces nurseries into positions they may not want to be in; having to remain open, in many cases at full capacity, leaving their nursery staff more at risk. In some cases, the rooms are filled to the extent that staff cannot socially distance from each other in their bubbles.
Although scientific evidence suggests that pre-school children are less susceptible to infection, that does not mean it is impossible for them to carry it. Nurseries are continually having to deal with the fall out of children or staff members testing positive. In such cases, a whole bubble has to be shut and all within this bubble then sent home. The staff are then advised to self-isolate.
To this end, nursery workers are not being as protected and considered as teachers are. Leading to the understanding among many nursery workers that they are only open to facilitate the needs of ‘more important’ workers working from home.
Maria* also told The Meridian Magazine that she feels as if parents bringing their children in forget the risk that nursery workers are taking: “When they drop them off we ask who is the best to contact, and they tell me they are, as they are working from home all day. This makes me question whether the child needs to be there. After all, we are in the middle of a pandemic, if you are working from home is it essential for you to bring them in and potentially put us at risk? It feels like we are being treated as glorified babysitters”.
Despite the increased risk that nursery practitioners are exposed to in their line of work, they are not being given proportionate protection and support. In such a time of crisis nursery workers’ protection must be prioritised. Indeed, if nurseries are to remain open, surely they should be added to the list of workers who receive the vaccine first. After all, these workers must be protected whilst they mould and care for the next generation.
*names changed for anonymity