In its COVID-19 Recovery Strategy, the Government said that it wanted to begin a gradual return to work in England by way of a three-stage process. The second stage would begin no earlier than 1 June (subject to the most up-to-date assessment of the risk posed by the virus). Paul Clarke examines how a phased return for early years settings might work and how providers can prepare for it.

The Recovery Strategy lacked any detail of how these aims were to be achieved but further guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) has made it possible for this plan of action for early years providers to be produced.

The five tests

Everything that follows is based on the assumption that the five tests set by the Prime Minister will have been met by 1 June. These are:

  • making sure the NHS can cope;

  • a 'sustained and consistent' fall in the daily death rate;

  • rate of infection decreasing to 'manageable levels';

  • ensuring supply of tests and PPE can meet future demand; and

  • being confident any adjustments would not risk a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS.

First steps

Assuming this to be the case, Actions for education and childcare settings to prepare for wider opening from 1 June 2020 confirms the suggested return outlined above and suggests that nurseries and other early years providers, including childminders, begin welcoming back all children. Demand for childcare is, the DfE believes, likely to be lower than usual at first, and existing space requirements and staff to child ratios for these age groups should allow for small group working.

In some cases, it may be necessary for providers to introduce a temporary cap on numbers to ensure that safety is prioritised. From 1 June 2020, childminders can look after children of all ages, in line with usual limits on the number of children they can care for.

Key action points

Children will need to stay within their new class/group wherever possible and the following actions will need to be taken:

  • minimising contact with individuals who are unwell by ensuring that those who have coronavirus symptoms, or who have someone in their household who does, do not attend settings;

  • ensuring good respiratory hygiene by promoting the ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ approach;

  • cleaning frequently touched surfaces often, using standard products such as detergents and bleach;

  • minimising contact and mixing by altering, as much as possible, the environment (such as classroom layout) and timetables (such as staggered break times); and, for everyone,

  • washing hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with running water and soap and drying them properly or using alcohol hand rub or sanitiser ensuring that all parts of the hands are covered.

Be prepared

Before any wider opening takes place, settings are advised to consider the following preparatory work:

  • refresh risk assessments and other health and safety advice for children and staff in light of recent government advice, identifying protective measures;

  • consider which lessons or classroom activities could take place outdoors;

  • adjust the timetable and consider the availability of resources in order to reduce movement around the school or building;

  • stagger drop-off and collection times, assembly groups and break times (including lunch);

  • plan parents’ drop-off and pick-up protocols that minimise adult-to-adult contact;

  • aim to reduce any unnecessary travel on coaches, buses or public transport where possible;

  • for childcare settings or early years groups in school, consider how to keep small groups of children together throughout the day and to avoid larger groups of children mixing;

  • for these groups, consider how play equipment is used ensuring it is appropriately cleaned between groups of children using it, and that multiple groups do not use it simultaneously; and

  • remove soft furnishings, soft toys and toys that are hard to clean.

Should PPE be used?

The Government has made it clear that wearing a face covering in childcare settings is not recommended. It also states that the majority of staff in such settings will not require personal protective equipment (PPE) beyond what they would normally need for their work, even if they are not always able to maintain a distance of two metres from others.

However, children whose care routinely already involves the use of PPE due to their intimate care needs should continue to receive their care in the same way. The only other exception would be if a child becomes unwell with symptoms of coronavirus and needs direct personal care until they can return home.

In that case, a fluid-resistant surgical face mask should be worn by the supervising adult if a distance of two metres cannot be maintained. If contact with the child is necessary, then disposable gloves, a disposable apron and a fluid-resistant surgical face mask should be worn by the supervising adult. If a risk assessment determines that there is a risk of splashing to the eyes - for example from coughing, spitting or vomiting - then eye protection should also be worn. Local supply chains should be used to obtain PPE or, failing that, an approach should be made to the nearest local resilience forum.

Protecting the clinically vulnerable

Staff with serious underlying health conditions which put them at very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus (those classed as “clinically extremely vulnerable”) are advised not to attend work.

“Clinically vulnerable” individuals who are at higher risk of severe illness (for example, people with some pre-existing conditions) have been advised to take extra care in observing social distancing and should work from home. If this is not possible, they should be offered the safest available on-site roles, staying two metres away from others wherever possible, although the individual may choose to take on a role that does not allow for this distance if they prefer to do so. If they have to spend time within two metres of other people, settings must carefully assess and discuss with them whether this involves an acceptable level of risk.

Staff and pupils in all settings will be eligible for testing if they become ill with coronavirus symptoms, as will members of their households. A child/young person or a member of staff who lives with someone who is clinically vulnerable (but not clinically extremely vulnerable), including those who are pregnant, can attend their childcare setting.

Class or group sizes

Children and staff should, where possible, only mix in a small, consistent group and that small group should stay away from other people and groups. Public Health England (PHE) has said that if early years settings do this, and crucially if they are also applying regular hand cleaning, hygiene and cleaning measures (and handling potential cases of the virus as per the advice), then the risk of transmission will be lowered.

For pre-school children in early years settings, the staff-to-child ratios within Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) continue to apply and the DfE recommends using these to group children. While in general groups should be kept apart, brief, transitory, contact such as passing in a corridor is considered to be low risk.

Any setting that cannot achieve these small groups at any point should discuss options with their local authority or trust. This might be because there are not enough classrooms / spaces available in the setting or because they do not have enough available teachers / staff to supervise the groups. Solutions might involve children attending a nearby setting (on a consistent basis).

If necessary, settings have the flexibility to focus first on continuing to provide places for priority groups and then, to support children’s early learning, settings should prioritise groups of children as follows:

  • early years settings – three and four year-olds followed by younger age groups;

  • infant schools - nursery (where applicable) and reception;

  • primary schools – nursery (where applicable), reception and year 1.

Attendance

Families should notify their nursery as normal if their child is unable to attend so that staff can explore the reason with them and address barriers together. The DfE will continue to monitor attendance at early years settings, via local authorities. This is to ensure that it has up-to-date information on available early years and childcare provision during the coronavirus outbreak, which children are accessing it and to monitor sufficiency in particular areas.

There is a continuing expectation that vulnerable children will attend childcare provision, where it is safe and appropriate for them do so. As per the current guidance, where these children are currently not attending but attendance is appropriate, the Department expects providers and local authorities to consider how to encourage their attendance.

Curriculum

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) sets the standards that childcare settings must meet for the learning, development and care of children from birth to five years-old. Early years settings should use reasonable endeavours to deliver the learning and development requirements as far as possible in the current circumstances. Further guidance is available online.

Added costs

For early years settings, the dedicated schools grant (DSG) should continue to be paid by local authorities for provision of free entitlements. Where parents are accessing hours beyond the free entitlements they are eligible for, early year providers should continue to charge parents in the normal way. The wider business support packages can be used as appropriate, including the loan schemes and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), on condition that the principles in the DfE’s sector specific guidance continue to be met.

Keep everyone informed

Making sure that everyone involved is up-to-date on the latest safeguard measures and requirements is seen as particularly important. Settings should consider the following:

  • tell parents, carers or any visitors, such as suppliers, not to enter the childcare setting if they are displaying any symptoms of coronavirus;

  • tell parents that, if their child needs to be accompanied to the childcare setting, only one parent should attend;

  • tell parents their allocated drop off and collection times and the process for doing so, including protocols for minimising adult to adult contact (for example, which entrance to use);

  • make clear to parents that they cannot gather at entrance gates or doors, or enter the site (unless they have a pre-arranged appointment, which should be conducted safely);

  • ensure parents are aware of recommendations on transport to and from the childcare setting (including avoiding peak times);

  • talk to staff about the plans (for example, safety measures, timetable changes and staggered arrival and departure times), including discussing whether training would be helpful;

  • communicate early with contractors and suppliers that will need to prepare to support plans for opening for example, cleaning, catering, food supplies, hygiene suppliers; and

  • discuss with cleaning contractors or staff the additional cleaning requirements and agree additional hours to allow for this.

Conclusion

There is an ever-growing number of guides advising childcare settings on how to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis and, as can be seen above, there are numerous issues and problems which need to be taken into account.

There is little value in over-summarising as the details are usually where the real dilemmas tend to lie. However, certain principles can be identified as recurring through all the official guidance, so these points are worth re-emphasising.

  • Stay two metres apart wherever possible.

  • Regularly wash and dry hands thoroughly.

  • Try to keep children and young people in the same small groups at all times, preferably with the same teacher.

  • Regularly clean surfaces that children and young people are touching.

  • Ensure proper ventilation.

  • Use outside space as much as possible.

  • Use halls, dining areas and internal and external sports facilities for lunch and exercise at half capacity.

Last reviewed 18 May 2020