Nursery leaders on what it is like reopening during a pandemic

As nurseries reopened this week, it seemed some children had picked up new hobbies after spending weeks at home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“One child was drawing the coronavirus,” Caroline Allen, a nursery owner, tells The Independent.

Meanwhile, others were teaching their classmates how to wash their hands.

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“They are overjoyed to be back,” says Allen – who runs Oaklea Montessori, a group of three nurseries in Essex. “They were rushing in.”

Nurseries have been shut for more than two months to limit the spread of coronavirus, although some – like two of Allen’s settings – have stayed open for children of key workers.

From Monday this week, the government gave the green light for nurseries to reopen to all children, as well as for primary schools to bring back certain classes.

According to Allen, having stayed partially open throughout the pandemic has helped ease parents’ anxieties about sending their children back.

“We haven’t had any cases and nobody has been ill,” she says. “I think it helps to reassure parents it is going to be ok.”

Hannah Tranah, the childcare development manager at the nursery group Storal Learning, said many children were happy to be back after spending ten weeks at home.

“A lot have been running through the doors excited to get back in,” she tells The Independent.

“So many have been excited to be back at nursery with their friends in an environment they know well, and with staff they know well.”

However, things have not gone exactly back to normal just yet. Nurseries have had to adapt for children and staff safety during the pandemic, especially due to the difficulty of getting young children to keep their distance from one another.

“To a certain degree, it’s near impossible to get young children to social distance,” adds Tranah. “We are doing a lot to educate the older children about what social distancing is and why we’re doing it.”

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Staff at Storal Learning, which has more than 20 nurseries in England, have been using stories to explain distancing.

Allen says her Essex nurseries are not enforcing social distancing between the children. “Particularly with under-twos, I think that would be absolutely impossible,” she added.

They have capped their numbers to around half of what they would usually have, with between 10 to 12 children coming in at each setting.

“We’re trying to combine groups of children so siblings are together and they remain with the practitioner throughout the day, ideally throughout the week,” Allen says. “That is a different way of working because normally there is an awful lot of flow.”

They have also stepped up cleaning – for example, wiping down individual books – and carrying out lots of risk assessments, the Essex nursery owner and practitioner says.

Children can still play with soft toys – which are regularly cleaned – although there are less on offer than before.

“It is really important to keep comfort and to keep it a homely place,” Allen says. “That is very important. We didn’t want it to become completely sterile.”

Storal Learning nurseries have also found ways to adapt to protect children and employees during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Staff are assigned to a bubble, or a group of children who has limited contact with other bubbles, Varun Chanrai, the managing director, said.

“Some smaller nurseries may have had to put a cap on occupancy but we haven’t had to do that because of the size of the buildings,” he tells The Independent.

Hands and toys are washed regularly, and parents asked to drop children off at staggered times, Tranah explains.

As nurseries make the first step to getting back to normal, challenges still remain for those operating with reduced numbers.

Experts have even warned some childcare providers could go out of business as they struggle to cope during the coronavirus crisis.

Nearly three in four nursery leaders expect to operate at a loss over the next three months amid reduced demand and increased costs associated with operating safely, a survey by the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) has suggested.

“It’s a real threat to the sector,” warns Chanrai​, although he is not worried about his company due to its large size.

“There are challenges at the best of times, and when you’re operating at such low capacity, the challenges are exacerbated for sure.”

“We need to have a reasonable consistency throughout the summer,” says Allen.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are a number of settings that will close as a consequence.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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