'It's the children that suffer': Childcare sector calls for COVID support
Moving into a COVID-normal phase is the next big step for the early childhood education and care sector, which is calling out for more support to better protect Canberra's youngest members of the community.
Wonderschool Early Learning Centre operations manager Sarah Wilcox says the industry has been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic and wants to see further prioritisation for the sector.
"Our educators and workforce have been working so hard throughout this pandemic. We can't work from home like schools because it's such a critical time in a child's development so there is real pandemic fatigue happening," Ms Wilcox said.
"A big priority for us is reaching out to our workers and being prepared early. We mandated vaccinations before the ACT government did, we talked about getting boosters before it was publicly announced and we've been sending consistent reminders around wellbeing to our staff.
"If you don't have a strong workforce who are healthy and engaged, the children are the ones that unfortunately do suffer."
As parents begin returning to work, Ms Wilcox says she's optimistic for the future of childcare but also acknowledges there will be challenges as COVID continues to spread.
"It's hard because vaccinations aren't available for under-five children yet, so I think there needs to be a bit of work around that to be better prepared for it moving forward," she said.
"The January period is our less busy time because people are on holidays so right now we're managing COVID difficulties but the people who are being affected are fewer than what we normally would have in February or March when it's busier.
"We're working hard to create a safe environment and have a reliable response system to mitigate risks because it's important children are at centres for healthy development."
Mother-of-two Lauren Kearney relies heavily on childcare services and said there needs to be better direction in managing cases with children.
"We haven't really had any advice from health departments, my daughter was at an exposure site in her childcare so I had to take her to get a PCR test because it's so hard to find rapid antigen tests," Ms Kearney said.
"It's a lot because we're still paying for all the time we're in isolation, I don't blame the centre at all because they aren't been given support either.
"There needs to be more thought that there are little kids who are still completely unvaccinated and it all seems like a bit of an afterthought."
Currently there are 10 centres closed either due to health emergencies or localised issues, which chief executive of the Early Learning and Care Council Elizabeth Death says is creating a significant increase in costs for operators.
"What we need now is consistent strategies across Australia and we need funding from governments to support that every time a child is away for a COVID related reason, a provider can waive their gap fee," Ms Death said.
"There needs to be financial support to be able to sustain but the thing that's worrying me is we will start to see families who can't afford to pay for services they can't access.
"We want to make sure that children aren't withdrawn, particularly the children who are experiencing vulnerability and disadvantage because they will have further delays in their growth and development and they're the ones that need the service more."