- Childcare centres are struggling to find enough staff due to COVID, influenza and burnout
- Staff say colder weather, the relaxation of mask mandates and an increase in colds and flu had left centres struggling to meet their educator-to-children ratios
- Community Child Care Association says staff shortages had left some centres concerned about the quality of education and care they can provide
Melbourne mother and executive assistant Carla Bottari is an old hand at dealing with COVID-19 disruptions.
When her childcare centre asked whether families could keep children home due to staff sickness, Bottari decided to juggle work with caring for her two young daughters.
Carla Bottari, with daughter Sophie, is keeping her two children home at the request of her childcare centre, which has been hard hit by COVID.Credit:Simon Schluter
“Mentally, it was, ‘Oh god, is this going to get worse?’” Bottari said.
Like schools, Victoria’s early education sector is struggling to find enough staff due to COVID, influenza and burnout.
While working with children at home is hard, Bottari is taking a cautious approach ahead of a family holiday.
“I think I’m used to it now,” she said. “And if I have to take a day off, I will.”
Barry Beckett Children’s Centre in Coburg, where Bottari sends her daughters, had managed to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks until recently.
Assistant director Holly Hamilton said a combination of colder weather, the relaxation of mask mandates for staff and an increase in colds and flu had left it struggling to meet educator-to-children ratios.
Centres must have one educator to four children for children under three years old. For three- to five-year-olds, the ratio is one educator to 11 children.
Early learning centres can apply for temporary staffing waivers through the early childhood regulator in exceptional circumstances
“We can’t call agencies like we used to because there’s nobody out there,” Hamilton said. “I’ve worked in early learning for eight years, and you’ve always been able to get last-minute staff, and that’s just not a possibility at the moment.”
Hamilton said the pandemic had felt like a decade for educators, who were unable to work from home and regularly exposed to unwell children.
“It has deterred a lot of people and a lot of people have left [the industry],” she said. “I hope that it’s just a fleeting moment and we can re-engage them.”
Julie Price, executive director of the Community Child Care Association, said some experienced leaders were quitting or retiring early after burning out during the pandemic.
Price said staff shortages had also left some centres concerned about the quality of education and care they could provide.
“Many are very frustrated, but really we can’t come up with a solution,” she said. “There’s not a pool of workers that we can get to work in education and care, and the pay and conditions aren’t really a big attraction.”
A spokesperson for the government said it had been clear that staffing would be a challenge across every sector this winter.
“Early childhood education isn’t immune, but we’re making sure children can stay learning face-to-face during the colder months,” the spokesperson said.
“We have taken measures to ensure providers remain open and keep staff and students safe – including $7.5 million in grants to improve ventilation in 1,700 Victorian kindergartens, mandated COVID-19 vaccines for staff, and free rapid antigen tests for all families and staff.”
New figures on early education attendance and staff retention are difficult to source, due to the different ownership structures of centres and out-of-date data.
The latest official figures show about 220,870 Victorian children attended centre-based and family daycare last year.
Australia has one of the most expensive childcare sectors in the OECD.
Early education was a key difference between Labor and the Coalition during the federal election. Labor promised to boost the wages of poorly paid early educators and to rejig the childcare subsidy to make 96 per cent of families better off.
The Coalition promised almost $11 billion in childcare fee relief in their next budget, targeted at low- to middle-income families.
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