Nursery Workers Say Staff Feel 'Worthless' And 'Undervalued' During Lockdown 3.0
On the evening of 4th January, Boris Johnson announced all primary and secondary schools would close to most students until the February half-term at the earliest.
But despite rising cases among young people, the same rules weren't extended to nurseries - leaving staff across the country feeling "forgotten", "undervalued" and "worthless".
While schools are open only to the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils, nurseries and early years providers remain open for all children, despite soaring cases and the spread of the new covid-19 variant.
Staff with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma tell Tyla they feel particularly worried. Some have expressed anger at a lack of consultation and have raised concerns about staff safety, a lack of financial support and vaccinations and demanded to see the scientific evidence behind the government's decision to keep them at work.
Lauren Foster, an early years practitioner at Wheatley pre school in Oxfordshire, is a type 1 diabetic and has two young sons - one of whom, five-year-old Ryan - is battling leukaemia. During the first lockdown they shielded but now she has no choice but to return to work.
"I believe nurseries and pre-schools should [only] be open to key workers and vulnerable children as schools are," Lauren told Tyla. "I also think regular testing should be given to staff and we should be in line for the vaccine."
The 28-year-old added: "Early years workers love their jobs. It's not a high paid role, you do it for the love of each and every child. But to the government, we feel at the bottom of the pile like glorified babysitters, not "teaching staff". We teach children their basic life and social skills before they start school."
Juggling her diabetes, her son's leukaemia and her three-year-old has been tough. During the first lockdown, Lauren was furloughed. The nursery stayed open to key worker children and Lauren shielded at home. "Our district nurses came out to us every week for line care. I had to learn my son's line care in case the team couldn't reach us to take bloods and flush my son's Hickman line. It was scary but we knew we was safe."
This time around Lauren and her partner have no choice but to work throughout the pandemic. "If I had the choice I would happily be in work for key worker children who need us for support but I don't agree all children need to be in if parents aren't working."
Megan Smith, a 26-year-old early years teacher from Portsmouth with asthma has had to continue working at Little Bears Forest preschool despite her anxiety. She works there with her sister Hannah Smith, 28, who also has asthma.
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"It's been a really difficult hurdle, and the most stressful time of my life ever" Megan says, explaining how she manages her asthma whilst having to come into work. "When there were talks of lockdown, we thought 'schools are closing so surely we will and we'll just be open for key worker children' but there was massive pressure to open."
The nursery has faced pressure from the council as a result of the government's guidelines to remain open for all children, otherwise funding may be affected. "If we close due to parental anxiety then [the council] will assess and honour it because the parents are anxious. But what about our anxiety? What about the staff's anxiety?"
Megan's nursery was encouraged to open in March 2020 for the children of key workers. The nursery identified the children of key workers and vulnerable children and put out a notice to all parents to inform them the nursery would be closed except for those who needed the care. "Every parent said they would keep their children at home. We didn't have any children between March and June."
When Megan heard that the nursery would not close along with primary and secondary schools in January, she felt "completely let down, undervalued and not respected."
She added: "I almost couldn't believe it. We almost pre-empted we would be closed but for it not to even be discussed, 'you're staying open and that's it', makes me think we have no voice and our voice isn't worth anything."
Nurseries are thought to be low-risk environments for the spread of covid-19, with vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi claiming nurseries pose "very little risk". "The guidance is focused on the children, who are at low risk and are asymptomatic, but what about the adults like myself who have asthma?" Megan responds.
She has advocated for nurseries to close for all children apart from those whose parents are key workers or those with additional needs."Anybody working in the early years is clearly not a priority, and there's been a complete lack of care and compassion for staff in the early years."
"The pandemic during this lockdown is the worst it has ever been. It seems foolish to think this wouldn't affect nurseries, the children or the staff. It's not going to get better if it's not consistent. The anxiety among staff is not going to go down if they feel unsafe."
Neil Leitch, Chief Executive of the Early Years Alliance, said early this month: "It is simply not acceptable that, at the height of a global pandemic, early years providers are being asked to work with no support, no protection and no clear evidence that is safe for them to do so."
Dr Helen Edwards, co-founder of Tapestry, an online learning journal for schools and early years settings, ran a nursery for 10 years.
She adds: "Although the children themselves may not be at high risk from the virus they can still transmit it. Despite the brilliant social distancing measures put in place by nurseries, they still bring parents and staff into much closer contact at a time when [everyone else is] being told to stay at home."
Featured Image Credit: Lauren Foster
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