‘We do not feel safe going to work’: Early-years staff face risk of COVID-19 while schools remain closed

A group of nursery students. Image via Unsplash

When a new wave of strict lockdown measures came into place in the UK on January 5th 2021, primary and secondary schools were told to switch to remote learning (with the exception of key worker and vulnerable children). On the contrary, nurseries and pre-schools have remained open to all children throughout this lockdown and many early-years staff report to feeling unsafe and forgotten by the government.    

While the government claim that under-fives were “unlikely to be playing a driving role in transmission,” they have been scrutinised for refusing to publish the scientific basis from which they are acting. Meanwhile, an estimated 31,000 staff working in nurseries and pre-schools have tested positive for COVID-19 since December 1st 2020 – amounting to one in ten workers in just seven weeks.   

“Myself and my colleagues have not felt safe going in to work.”

Tina Gray, Head of Broomley pre-school in Northumberland, expressed her concerns about the requirement of pre-schools to stay open and the fact that they must do so without proper PPE. In discussion with The Lens, she said: “The way the early-years sector has been treated over the past few months has been totally disheartening. Myself and my colleagues have not felt safe going in to work.” Despite schools only being open for children of key workers, Gray’s pre-school has had to open to all, leaving her staff to cope with classes of up to 24 for children. She explains that social distancing is impossible with 3-4 -year-olds and that her staff have been told that they “need no PPE.” 

Gray recently had to temporarily close the pre-school due to a positive COVID-19 case, and she says that the situation has caused “low morale in the workplace, a feeling of being disrespected and the thought that our profession is not valued.”  

Timeline created by The Lens via Visme. Data source: https://www.gov.uk/  

Parents, however, are also under great pressure during this strict lockdown, and many are struggling with home-schooling their children while also working from home. Emily Dobson has two young children, one of whom is currently attending pre-school. She said that choosing to send one child to pre-school while the other can’t attend school was a tough decision. However, keeping her child at home while also working from home didn’t feel like an option. “Trying to balance different pressures and priorities such as work, school work, my children’s mental health and my own mental health isn’t easy” she explained.  

“Our reality is physically and mentally exhausting!” 

Dave Richardson, parent of two (ages six and two), told The Lens that he and his partner decided not to send their child back to nursery after the new lockdown was announced. “If schools are closed, I think nurseries should also really be closed” he explained. However, like Dobson, he expresses how difficult it is to cope with young children during lockdown and the stress of working from home. “We are so lucky compared to many,” he added, “but our reality is physically and mentally exhausting!”  

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