Nurseries in England have been forced to reduce their opening hours and even close entirely because of staff shortages after Covid-19 cases soared in early-years settings, with almost 3,700 reports in a single week.
According to government figures published on Monday, during the week before Christmas, Ofsted received 3,697 notifications of coronavirus in nursery, preschool and childminding settings. Each notification covers a single site and can represent more than one case.
The latest figures represent a significant jump in cases. Last January, Covid-19 notifications at early-years settings peaked at 2,357 reports, which was then exceeded in November with 2,707 in a single week.
The Early Years Alliance (EYA), which represents 14,000 members in the sector, said with coronavirus reports at a record high, it was “no surprise that so many early-years settings are reporting being forced to reduce opening hours, close rooms or, in the worst cases, close entirely due to Covid-19 cases”.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the EYA, said: “The government has to date offered little to no support to help keep settings open, despite the fact that, without them, other critical workers who have young children are unable to continue doing the vital work we rely on them for.
“Statutory adult-to-child ratios in early-years settings ensure a high standard of care and education, but make it particularly difficult for the sector to manage staff absences, which often occur at the last minute. Given the nature of the crisis, allowing greater flexibility on current ratio rules, in a way that still prioritises child safety and wellbeing, would help settings to remain open through these most challenging moments.
“But government must act now if we are to ensure that settings are to be able to remain open and offer the continuity of care and education that children and families need.”
Schools are already being affected by disruption in nurseries. Headteachers have reported that staff with young children have been unable to come to work because of nursery closures. At one early-years establishment, 11 of 30 staff were off with coronavirus.
The Oak National Academy, a virtual school set up by government early in the pandemic to provide free online lessons during the Covid disruption, has reported a sharp increase in schools using its resources amid the surge in the Omicron variant.
Oak had 340,000 weekly users last week, the highest number since schools returned from lockdown closures in March 2021, up from 166,000 for the week commencing 13 December. Pupils use Oak’s resources for remote learning while off ill or self-isolating and schools are able to use online lessons when teachers are absent.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is ominous if we are already seeing an increase in the number of teachers and pupils using online lessons because it suggests that there are a lot of children having to remain at home and learn remotely at a very early stage in the term.”
The government is due to publish latest school attendance figures on Tuesday. Oak data suggests the sharpest increase in the use of its online resources has been in schools in the East Midlands and North West.
Schools in England are also continuing to struggle with staff absence. A survey by the NASUWT teachers’ union found that nearly a quarter of teachers (23%) think staff absences because of Covid-19 are having a significant impact.
Of the nearly 7,000 teachers who responded to the survey, 61% said they were having “some impact”, with almost half (46%) saying they had had to cover for absent colleagues. Less than half (44%) said their school had a plan in place for deploying CO2 monitors and 18% said there was no plan at all.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have provided extensive guidance for the early years workforce on the measures to take to reduce the spread of Covid-19, as well as significant financial support to protect providers from the impact of the pandemic. Providers can use existing flexibilities set out in the early years statutory framework to manage short-term workforce pressures, so long as children continue to be cared for safely.”Uncategorised