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Reopening of ECE centres at level 3 a bad idea

Nikki Carroll
Dr Mike Bedford
Dr Mike Bedford  Dr Mike Bedford

Reopening early childhood education centres too soon poses the greatest risk of community transmission of COVID-19, according to Dr Mike Bedford.

Dr Bedford is New Zealand’s only post-graduate public health qualified expert in ECE health, and is concerned his input has not been sought in the decision-making process. 

Even before the level four lockdown, Dr Bedford was desperately trying to convince officials one way to deal with the coronavirus pandemic was to close early childhood centres to all children except those for whom attendance was essential.

Children in this environment utilise the senses of touch, smell and taste to explore their world, and are constantly in close contact with each other and their teachers/carers, so trying any form of social distancing is impossible.

Dr Bedford’s research also shows that historically most centres have sick teachers teaching and sick children attending, due to inadequate sick leave provisions, which puts everyone at risk.

Fiona Devlin, an ECE teacher on the Kapiti Coast, has seen chickenpox and gastro bugs sweeping through her centre in the past, which has resulted in 3 to 4 weeks of half full classes, despite good handwashing and health actions being put in place.  

“Coming into winter, which often creates a bug-fest, [the Government needs to] take it slowly [reopening early childhood centres] so the four weeks of lockdown is not wasted.”

Home based ECE
Home-based ECE setting Nikki Carroll

Christchurch based kindergarten teacher, Alexis Blackett, says her colleagues are looking at the lockdown as a fantastic opportunity to catch up on paperwork that often gets behind when focussing on the education and care of the children.

However, Miss Blackett is also concerned about the Government rushing into opening the early childhood sector up again and wonders if teachers will need to be tested for the virus before being able to work, and how centres would know that the children coming in are healthy.

Dr Bedford’s expectation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was the next term of Government would see the collapse of the early childhood education sector due to poor conditions and loss of teachers.  His biggest concern now is that the Government is not seeking advice from those in the field regarding how the next steps should be handled.

“I am not in any way advocating opening up centres, but if that is what happens then there is a process that must be followed,” says Dr Bedford.  In fact, he suggests centre-based ECE should not be taking on children of people in high risk occupations – essential workers should be looking at home-based care instead.

The Government's briefing yesterday on how level 3 would look advised there would be a partial reopening of early childhood centres and schools up to and including Year 10, with an expectation that children would be kept within a smaller school bubble and that those who could stay home, would.

However Dr Bedford is very concerned about this.

“The Ministry of Health has no expertise in early childhood education…it doesn’t know the day to day realities [and] the Ministry of Education has no expertise in health within the…sector,” he says.