Face masks, pods and nappies – The life of an essential early years educator

Róisín Cullen

93 per cent of Early Years educators say they will leave the sector in five years’ time if things don’t improve.

Amy McGahern an Early Childhood Education student in Marino Institution of Education is one of many students who do not see a future in the sector as things stand.

“I love the Early Years sector but for me after spending four years studying and all the money on fees and accommodation -I don’t think it is plausible to stay in this sector,” the class rep admits.

McGahern shares the views of many students and graduates in the sector who feel that “hopeful change” is coming, but is long overdue.

Last Friday marked the year anniversary of the first time all childhood organisations had grouped together in Dublin city centre creating “a sea of red” of 30,000 staff members and providers.

A year later, Covid-19 has heightened problems that had already existed in the sector. A virtual event instead took place this year with participants encouraged to wear red and use #ValueEarlyYears in social media posts.

Early Childhood Education students know all too well the strain of balancing work with dissertations and recommended readings. McGahern’s video quality bluffers as she speaks about the impact rural Wifi can have on a university student’s ability to complete coursework.

After running downstairs to fix her booster, she explains that a workspace and number of megabits per second now determines a student’s success. However, a more pressing issue is an ever present figure in the minds of Early Childhood Education students – final year placement.

“It’s just being pushed back and back” McGahern says as she stresses the need for a final answer on the issue.

As class rep McGahern has been entrusted with the worries of students who feel that placement is a health risk. “Some people may have family at home who are vulnerable, students that are vulnerable themselves. There are a couple of students in the year that may have somebody at home that are very sick or they’re not well themselves.”

Mary Immaculate College student, Shannon Lewis echoes these worries. Lewis works part-time alongside her studies.

“I do find it hard going into work every day and I don’t feel fully safe because there are some people who aren’t sticking to the protocol.

“I have vulnerable family members. I don’t want to be putting them at risk of anything but I have to go to work every day.”

A profession that take its toll

Working in “wobbler” rooms (with children usually under the age of two) does not allow for a great deal of social distance.

“You’re bringing them to the toilet, you’re changing nappies. When they fall they come over and they’re hugging you… In that way with the children I don’t feel you’re protected,” says McGahern.

McGahern acknowledges that risks within the sector are unlikely to change before their entry into the workforce. Many students are eager for a “break” from their makeshift offices/bedrooms for four-five hours a day during placement, simply a change of scenery.

Staff turnover was high even in the times before unprecedented times with a large number of workers experiencing burnout due to the mental and physical strain.

38 per cent of Early Years Educators are actively looking for another job outside of the sector. Colleagues taking sick leave and others simply leaving leads to workplaces where “you’re never working with the same people”.

A “stepping stone” towards primary teacher soon became fellow Marino student Lauren Shannon’s passion. “I found my passion through the course and that was caring for and educating the youngest and most vulnerable in our society. Every day is different”, Shannon tells The College View.

Like many others, she feels that the job takes its toll and that parents are not always aware of the work that takes place behind the scenes.

“What they don’t see is the endless amounts of paperwork, the planning of activities and all that goes along with that. They don’t see the breakdowns, the tantrums and all the plates that we as practitioners try and juggle at once.”

Handling change in uncertain times

Early education has adapted to unprecedented changes since March 2020. Fob systems mean that only those with a fob can enter the building.

Staggered drop off and collection times as well as designated pick up points, reduce contact between parents. Pods allow some sense of normality when in the facility.

Yet, Mary Immaculate graduate Gina Roche explains that these solutions can often cause further problems. Transitions and change can be difficult even in normal times for children and need to be handled with care. Restrictions on who can enter the building, can lead to stressful situations for parents and children alike.

“We had one new little two year old boy start with us, because of the effects of Covid, that little boy had been in isolation in his house with just his family for the majority of his short life.

“The transition into childcare should have been smooth and allowed for parents to come into the room but we couldn’t accommodate that due to the risk it,” said Roche.

Pods can create logistical issues for families and feelings of isolation for staff members working on their own in a room.

“Siblings cannot see each other throughout the day, which can be lonely for the children, but also for staff we could be in a pod with five children on our own.”

Paperwork and extra responsibilities added to an “already daunting workload” may make the job seem underpaid and underappreciated but Roche explains that those in the sector aren’t in it for the money. “It honestly added so much stress and pressure but I do it for the love of the children.”

While Roche and her colleagues had strived to maintain a sense of normality as “they’re small, vulnerable and their minds are at the crucial point of learning and developing”, this normality is no longer possible.

Since the team have closed their doors, story books are read out loud and recorded for our youngest generation of Zoom learners.

Going above the line of duty

Celine Govern is the proud owner of The Village Preschool. When Govern was twenty-nine she was working in insurance. However, EU funding (introduced to encourage the set-up of regulated childcare facilities) allowed her to start her business.

“I decided to put in an application form. I was the first in Meath to be successful”, she reflects. Like many businesses across the country, Covid-19 brought challenges to Govern’s door that could never have been foreseen.

“Covid of course has changed everything, dramatically. The first and most brutal change was the loss of all our funding on April 1 2020,” she said.

Providers like Govern signed on to the PUP payment, struggling financially and wondering when they would be able to reopen.

“This caused a huge amount of stress and anxiety and I would say that it definitely had an impact on my own well-being”, she admits. Staff were retained on Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS), which actually meant they received a higher wage than they normally would have.

Govern felt it was important to keep parents in the loop during this time, even though she was not obliged to do so. Govern feels that the relationship between provider and parents is invaluable.

“My engagement with parents happened because I really value that relationship,” she said.

Although 2020 was not all negative for her business with funding allowing her to improve her facilities and improve child-teacher ratios. “We received funding to enhance our outdoor play areas… I was able to employ an extra teacher and a cleaner.”

Govern is grateful for the fact that her business is 100% government funded and is not reliant on parental fees. The less fortunate childcare settings only have 50% of wages covered by the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS).

The great outdoors

Unlike most, Govern has not introduced pods for the thirty children that attend each morning, instead making use of their large outdoor area.

“I made the decision not to operate pods as I felt this meant children would only get an hour outside. By moving the entire school outdoors, it meant we were able to operate with no pods”. She feels that this decision has insured that her business is as safe as possible.

Other adaptations, may stay long after the pandemic has ended. Lunchboxes (which run the risk of contamination at home) have been replaced with food being provided within the facility.

Parents pay a fee each month for daily meals, something that has been a huge success for all involved. Regular risk assessments, policies, procedures and constantly adapting to change is the life of a provider doing all she can to keep staff, children and parents safe.

Last Friday’s online action brought attention to the fact that Ireland has the lowest paid early years’ sector in the EU.

UNICEF’s investment to the sector is one per cent GDPR. In Ireland this investment is 0.2 per cent. Those at the frontline are now calling for Ireland to increase the investment to meet the UNICEF recommendation by 2025.

Change may be coming but for many, it is simply not coming fast enough.

“Ireland has led the way in many other areas in Europe and we see no reason why they can’t do the same with childcare”

Róisín Cullen 

Image Credit: Grace O’ Sullivan