How has COVID-19 impacted an already struggling sector?
Let's start with a disclaimer. This post discusses the COVID-19 Vaccination. Whether you choose to get vaccinated or not, is none of my business. This post is not intended to convince you to get vaccinated, or not. This post is not intended to make you feel guilty, or angry. What this post is intended to do, is encourage reflection. That is it, and that is all.
Right now, the early childhood sector is in crisis. We hear from educators and services each and every week who are struggling to recruit and retain quality educators - or to be fair in many cases, any educators at all. My buddy Jeff A Johnson has previously referred to the concept of having "warm bodies" in early childhood settings - people who don't particularly want to be there or don't really add a lot of value in a pedagogical sense but who remain in their postion because the service needs to have the required number of educators to remain compliant. While of course this is a sad concept, I wonder if at the moment, there are some services that would give anything for a few "warm bodies."
We are a sector that has long experienced workforce issues. Typically underpaid, in an emotionally heightened role, many educators leave the sector to find work that will better suit them, their families and their financial obligations.
We know that women comprise the vast majority of our sector also, and with that we often see many educators taking a break from the sector during pregnancy, or for parental leave and to raise their children. When I had my first child I was a Director at a 39 place community based long day care service. We had four of our educators having babies at the same time - which meant four lots of parental leave, and four lots of negotiating return to work arrangements, which often included part time work.
Needless to say, recruitment and retention has long been a challenge for our sector, but the arrival of COVID-19 in early 2020, exacerbated the issue, and many services are now at breaking point.
The impact of Job Seeker and "Free Childcare"
While there is no doubt that financial initiatives from the Australian government were designed to support the economy and the Australian people, and in many cases will have made a big difference, many services have told us that these initiatives significantly and detrimentally impacted their operations as well as their bottom line. Challenges have ranged from struggling to pay wages, to difficulties explaining the impact of "free childcare" to families, to having casual employees who opted not to work due to be financially "better off" on the Job Seeker program.
The impact of mandated vaccinations
When the announcement was made in NSW that those working in the early education and care sector would be mandated to receive a vaccination for COVID-19, there were no doubt many educators who were quick to get their jab and felt that this was a good move for the health and wellbeing of children, families and educators. On the flip side, there is a different story. One where educators are having to choose between their job and their personal decision to not be vaccinated.
Whether you agree with vaccination or not is not my concern. Whether you think vaccines should be mandated or not is not my concern.
What I am concerned about, is how this will impact our sector. When I heard recently of a wonderful educator who has been in the sector for 30+ years, many of those at the same amazing service, who is leaving as a result of not being vaccinated (I don't know their reasons, nor do I need to), I couldn't help but feel a sense of loss.
Loss for the children who will no longer have this person listening to their ideas and sparking their curioisity.
Loss for the educators who will no longer have this inspiring role model.
Loss for the families who will no longer have this person who they have trusted to care for their children.
This is not the time for arguments and division
A few weeks back I happened to stumble across a "discussion" on social media, that had quickly spiralled out of control, with battle lines clearly drawn and accusations and critisicm being thrown wildly about. What a shame. We are supposed to be on the same team - the team that wants the best for children. What that looks like may look different among us - that's the beauty of diversity. We will always have different beliefs, different understandings. This article by Catherine Hydon and Trent Moy helps to unpack this really well.
What is the solution?
To be perfectly honest - I just don't know. Does the early childhood system need an overhaul? Surely. Does more work need to be done to attract people to the sector? Absolutely. There is no quick fix though. Our workforce issues have been snowballing for many years, and so it will take time to solve the problems that got us here.
What I do know though is that we won't solve these problems by fighting amongst the sector, by blaming, or by just doing "what we've always done." Real change takes advocacy.
Real change takes creativity.
Real change takes a united commitment.
If you have been experiencing recruitment and retention issues - let us know. Send me an email (email@example.com)