The government's handling of the early education sector during the COVID-19 pandemic created "fear and confusion" for some providers, with one teacher saying she feels staff were disrespectfully treated as "babysitters" without protection, as the nation attempted to flatten the curve.
The temporary free child care model is due to end on July 12, and JobKeeper assistance for the sector will finish on July 20. For many community-based preschools and family day care operators, who rely on family payments to survive, managing the new model combined with a perceived lack of support around COVID-19 safety measures has been difficult.
We should be seen in the same way as primary schools and high schools, who have had councillors and were given policies and procedures around what to follow.Preschool director and teacher Narelle Myers
Not-for-profit Bermagui Preschool director and teacher Narelle Myers said while many families stopped using the service in March, they were advised by the state government to remain open or lose funding. She said they were forced to remain open for half their regular pay.
"Obviously our staff were a bit fearful, because we weren't given any information on our safety needs," she said.
"The lack of support was very concerning. It got worse from there.
"During the isolation phase we were put into a vulnerable financial situation, and didn't know if we could survive. We thought we would have to close in August, but now we are okay."
Ms Myers wrote to state and federal ministers, as well as the Prime Minister to share her concerns.
"It's great the support came, but it highlighted where the government's focus is in terms of early childhood education," she said.
"We should be seen in the same way as primary schools and high schools, who have had councillors and were given policies and procedures around what to follow.
"Teachers there all stayed on their same rates of pay and were not at risk of losing their job. They were also given funding for cleaning.
"None of that was offered to early childhood education."
In May Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his suspension of the normal payments and subsidies in favour of a "different model" combined with JobKeeper, was a "temporary measure" designed for the COVID-19 lockdown period.
He said free education was "not a sustainable model for how the child care sector should work, and nor was it intended to be", and that the intention was "always to return" to previous arrangements.
Advocates Early Childhood Australia, said the return during a recession may leave fees "completely out of reach for many". Ms Myers said the while return to what was a "complex" system "can't come soon enough" for Bermagui Preschool, for other providers in the area it is a different story.
She said the cutting of their federal funding by half was made with the proviso staff would qualify for the Jobkeeper program - which they were not. It wasn't until just two weeks ago their funding was reinstated, she said.
While they are now back to full capacity, Ms Myers said she feels the business has lacked support from both the state and Commonwealth governments "at every single corner".
"During that time we implemented our own policies around our safety," she said.
"We also got an online preschool happening for families who decided to stay home, without any extra funding or support."
"The support that has come is belated, and after the horse has bolted."
Ms Myers said the changes will impact different providers in different ways, adding a "one size fits all" approach doesn't work, and more "flexibility" is needed in the sector.
In May, education minister Dan Tehan, following advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee to keep schools open, announced funding of $452.3million to keep preschools open until the end of 2021.
Ms Myers said the introduction of the government subsidy announced in early April, following a meeting between the Prime Minister and the National Cabinet, was an opportunity to provide permanent free early childhood education.
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"The taking away of fees was great, and it's what we've been fighting for," Ms Myers said.
She said the information now being provided on how to manage the sector was not available when it was most needed.
"We were basically forgotten about," she said.
"What was best for the children was forgotten about.
"When you look at government policy there is a big emphasis on care but not in terms of education."
A recent United Services Union survey found more than two-thirds of respondents said "they and the centre's families are more at risk of COVID-19 as a result of increasing attendance", and "half reported having to compromise the quality of education and care daily or regularly during the pandemic".
In March Mr Morrison told reporters he expected early childhood educators to maintain social distancing measures at all times, while continuing to operate, and workers were concerned they did not have appropriate protective equipment.
"It's all common sense. You know, we don't need to tell Australians how to get out of bed in the morning and how to put their shoes and socks on and things like that. Australians understand. And I'm not making light of this, I'm not. These are important, normal, common-sense social interaction measures that people can take," he said.
Liberal candidate for the Eden-Monaro by-election Fiona Kotvojs said the government has "done a very good job helping the child care sector survive the coronavirus crisis", adding the temporary rescue package helped providers "on the brink of collapse".
"Because of our success at flattening the curve, things are starting to return to normal - demand in the child care sector is at almost three-quarters, and services have been keen to expand their offering to more families."
"The transition measures - paying child care services 25 percent of their fee revenue until 27 September, and replacing JobKeeper with an additional $708million payment - has been welcomed by the childcare industry.
"In addition to the transition payment, the government is paying approximately $2billion this quarter in the Child Care Subsidy. The subsidy covers up to 100 hours of care per fortnight, and ensures that those who earn the least receive the highest level of subsidy."
Labor's candidate Kristy McBain said the changes "are a dud deal for parents".
"At a time when local families are struggling to recover from bushfire, drought and coronavirus - the last thing they need is more expensive child care," she said.
"Families are doing it tough, and snapping back to the old child care fee structure will only make it tougher.
"I'm worried that this could make the recession even worse by taking money from the pockets of struggling families in our region."
Ms Myers said the preschool is now struggling to find adequate support for mental health for children who have experienced the recent bushfire emergency and fears surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The children are stressed and have a heightened separation anxiety," she said.
"Families won't call a support phone line or go to see a GP as it is a sign of weakness, but they will talk to our staff, who are baring the brunt of it all.
"We still have families who haven't been able to get bushfire support, and families who have lost businesses and lost jobs.
"It's been very challenging."
She said the preschool has also lost staff for various reasons, and despite the recession, a vacant position has been advertised for weeks she has not received a single application.
Ms Myers said workers in the sector are seeking higher paying roles within areas including the NDIS, and moving away from early childhood education sector.
"Every time we've advertised before we have had many applications," she said.