Repurposing a sporting facility and opening an ECEC service during a global pandemic
Opening a new service is a challenge at the best of times – attracting families to the service, establishing a staff team, and creating a culture which makes everyone feel welcome from day one.
When the new service is housed in the refurbished clubhouse of the iconic Parramatta Eels, and is set to open amidst unprecedented economic and social conditions arising from a global pandemic, the order becomes far tougher.
We spoke with Rennae Griffith, Centre Manager of Guardian Childcare & Education Parramatta, to learn more about how she has tackled this unique set of circumstances, and hearing her advice for others who are undertaking a similar journey.
The service opened in late August, showcasing to the community the process which had transformed the former Parramatta Eels Clubhouse into a custom-designed early learning centre with extensive outdoor spaces, thanks to its previous life as a sporting hub.
As well as the former use of the site, the service is located on the same site as St Ioannis church, which offers an enclosed complex with perimeter fencing, and the ability to access some of Parramatta’s parks and educational facilities such as the library, within minutes of the service, as well as local landmarks such as Elizabeth Farm and Hambledon Cottage.
With the service opening being pushed back to August, rather than the original April opening date, we wanted to learn more about the biggest challenges Rennae has faced in setting up both a new service and team while COVID-19 challenges were in play.
“It has been challenging in a different way than any other type of new enrolment process,” she said.
The children have not been able to access the space for visits as they may have in pre-COVID times, and have also missed being out in the community as they may have been in the past, with little to no playgroup sessions, shopping centre visits or playground trips.
As a result, many of the children’s personal and social interactions have been significantly limited and their attachment to their parents has become significantly greater.
Juggling separation anxiety has become a bigger factor to consider, Rennae continued, with dual challenges of settling children into a new environment while managing big feelings following separation from their family.
“Thankfully, our educators and teachers are experts at helping children adjust to the childcare setting. We often find the children settle in very quickly – often more so than the parents,” Rennae said.
Improvise, adapt, overcome
COVID-19 restrictions have meant that typical processes which would be in place for a new service, such as tours and orientation sessions, have had to function a little differently. While some families have been disappointed at not being able to be onsite for milestones such as children’s birthdays, they have been “very accepting”, understanding that the measures are there to keep everyone safe and healthy.
Parents have been able to stay in touch with the daily activities of the service through communication platforms such as Storypark.
The service implemented a staggered process of enrolment to allow children to settle with a few more children to welcome into each space once a week. There has not been any open days, or service wide celebrations, but the team, Rennae said, have been “making the most of the close-knit time we have together with the children and their families to really get to know each other and form a wonderful partnership.”
Working together to overcome the various challenges has meant that the team and family culture has been the most integral part of the service opening, something Rennae says may have taken longer, or been less strong, under “normal” circumstances.
Advice for others
When asked what advice she would give to others in the same position, Rennae said flexibility was key.
“My team and I were very excited to open the new centre, but we knew that opening amidst a global pandemic would look a lot different to our original plan,” she added.
“Despite the challenges, we worked together as a team, partnered with our families and we’ve been able to welcome our children to the centre with open arms. We cannot wait to share it with the wider community when the time is right.”
For more information about Guardian Childcare & Education Parramatta, please see here.