As you are aware, the reintroduction of full Level 5 COVID-19 restrictions were announced by Government on 30 December.
Under these restrictions and in line with the Plan for Living with COVID-19, it was announced that early learning and childcare services and schools will continue to operate in Level 5 and are deemed essential, with early learning and childcare services reopening after the Christmas break as usual and schools reopening at a slightly later date of 11 January.
Minister O’Gorman met with the Early Learning and Childcare COVID-19 Advisory Group on 31 December to discuss this matter. Representatives from the Advisory Group shared their concerns about the full resumption of early learning and childcare from early January. While accepting the need to maintain early learning and childcare, particularly for essential workers, the Advisory Group asked that the pre-school programme would be aligned with the reopening of schools.
In light of the concerns raised, the Minister has agreed with his Cabinet colleagues that the ECCE pre-school programme can resume at a slightly later date of 11 January 2021. By postponing the return of children to the pre-school programme, social mixing will be reduced, which will help to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the post-Christmas period.
The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth will provide funding to providers for the pre-school programme for the week of 4 to 8 January. Services who were due to resume the pre-school programme that week will be able to make up the lost time later in the year. If this is not possible for certain services, for example if they have no flexibility in their calendar, the funding for the pre-school programme provided for the week of 4 to 8 January will not be recouped. Further information on this will be provided in the coming days by way of a PIP/Hive notice.
Under the full Level 5 COVID-19 restrictions, early learning and childcare services and childminders that provide services other than, or in addition to, the pre-school programme can continue to operate. These services provide an essential service which supports parents to go to work.
The Minster is asking these services to reopen as planned from 4 January to provide childcare, particularly to priority groups. The Department understands that services may suffer temporary staff shortages from 6-8 January due to the closure of schools, and that this may put pressure on the ratios. In these cases, providers are requested to prioritise the children of essential workers and vulnerable children, in accordance with the guidance below.
With regard to potential postponed return to services by children who are subsidised under the NCS or legacy schemes, children may be absent from early learning and childcare services for at least 4 weeks without any change in subsidy levels. Funding under the NCS and legacy schemes will be paid to providers in accordance with the payment calendars, and providers are reminded to submit their NCS attendance returns on the Hive, as that return is the trigger for their NCS payment.
We understand that this has been a very stressful few days for providers, parents and practitioners. Early learning and childcare services have provided services with excellent hygiene and infection control, which has helped control the spread of COVID-19 in services and in the community. The HSE have assured us that early learning and childcare services are safe to reopen, and we hope that services will reopen on schedule to provide childcare, particularly for essential workers and vulnerable children, and that the sector, including the pre-school programme, will fully resume on 11 January, in line with schools.
The press release, guidance document and FAQs regarding public health advice and prioritisation for services reopening are available to read at the links below.