Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Wednesday that childcare centres, like schools, have been classed as “essential” gatherings and will remain open at this stage. But the childcare sector, which employs about 200,000 people and cares for about 1.3 million children, is still bracing for shutdowns, while already reporting a drop in enrolments.
The Australian Childcare Alliance, which represents long daycare owners and operators, began surveying its members this week. According to more than 200 respondents, 73 per cent of services have seen parents withdraw their children for a COVID-19 reason. On average, services had seen seven families withdraw since the start of March.
“If we grind to a halt [now], when we’re asked to re-open how many services will still be viable?” ACA vice president Nesha Hutchinson said.
The ACA has proposed a scaled-down model for daycare centres to the Morrison government, should centres be forced to close. Ms Hutchinson said the new model would involve some operators keeping their doors open but only accepting much smaller groups per room, such as five children instead of 15 or 20.
Priority for places would go to parents who worked in frontline jobs in healthcare and emergency services. The scaled-down model would not include every centre.
“It would depend on where the need is, and depend on services who have staff who are willing and able,” Ms Hutchinson said.
Ms Page said the government, at a minimum, should continue to provide existing funding for fees, which was almost $2.2 billion in the September 2019 quarter. The “activity test”, which requires parents to work at least eight hours a week to qualify for childcare support, should also be waived.
Goodstart, Australia’s largest not-for-profit childcare provider also said it was hoping to “hear more from the federal government on their plans to secure the nation’s early learning sector”.
“After the crisis, the nation’s economy and every single local community will need a strong early learning sector to support families with education and care as workplaces return to normal,” chief executive Julia Davison said.
Education Minister Dan Tehan has been talking to the childcare sector this week. He told ABC 24 on Tuesday, he wanted to “make sure we’re putting the plans in place to help and support them as well”.
Labor’s spokesperson for early childhood education Amanda Rishworth wrote to Mr Tehan on Wednesday, warning of an “increasing level of anxiety” amongst childcare operators and the community, noting there was a “strong need for the government to intervene to provide more certainty”.
According to an Education Department update to services this week, there are a number of “existing robust and responsive support mechanisms” in place for the early childhood sector.
The department noted families already have 42 days a year, where they can still access the childcare subsidy if their child does not attend daycare. Additional absentee days can also be provided with a medical certificate. Families would still need to pay any gap between the subsidy and their fees.
If a childcare service closes due to coronavirus, it cannot charge fees. The department said special circumstances grants are available to centres in times of hardship, however, Labor has questioned whether the $14 million fund will be “sufficient”.
Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House