Desert storm: how a tiny outback child care centre weathered COVID-19

by Freya Lucas

September 30, 2020

Through a combination of gritty outback determination and help from the Australian Government’s Early Childhood Education and Care Relief and Transition Packages, Little Nuggets Early Learning Centre has weathered the COVID-19 storm.

 

Halls Creek, a remote town on the edge of the Great Sandy and Tanami deserts in far north-east Western Australia, doesn’t spring to mind as a likely COVID-19 hotspot. But for a short and intense time it felt the full impact of the pandemic, and the entire town of 1500 people virtually shut down.

 

Schools were restricted to the children of essential workers, and other premises closed, including main street businesses, the Aboriginal medical centre, Child and Parent Centre and even the shire headquarters.

 

But not the town’s sole child care centre, which has kept on keeping on.

 

Centre director Naomi Ivala said panic set in when a fly-in doctor was diagnosed with COVID-19 and three other health workers were confirmed with the virus.

 

Attendance numbers at Little Nuggets collapsed from 30 children to just three, and staff numbers reduced from seven to four because of sickness, a resignation and isolation requirements.

 

“We are the only approved service in town, so we wanted to do everything possible to stay open,” Naomi said.

 

The Government’s Relief Package was a welcome help.

 

“We probably had one more week left in us and then we would have had to make the decision to close,” Naomi said.

 

A nationwide survey conducted in May 2020 for the Department of Education, Skills and Employment found the twin measures of the Relief Package and JobKeeper Payments helped to keep 90 per cent of child care services open and 91 per cent to retain staff.

 

With 65 per cent of its population Indigenous, Halls Creek is one of the largest predominantly Indigenous communities in Australia.

 

Little Nuggets, which offers long day care and vacation care, is representative of that. At last count, 20 of its enrolled 31 children have an Indigenous background. When COVID-19 struck, some families fled to the safety of outback communities and bush medicine.

 

By late June, numbers rose to pre-COVID-19 attendance levels and Naomi and her team could again focus on providing quality child care.

 

“We’re thankful to have had the Transition Payments to help us through this uncertainty which is very much alive in our community,” Naomi said. “We are still being cautious and our families are supportive of the measures we have in place to keep their children safe.”

 

Lurlene Button, a single mother of three, said Little Nuggets proved to be an anchor of security and allowed her to return to work. “Once my child went back to Little Nuggets, it made a huge difference,” she said.

 

The centre provided Talitha Archer and her family with similar peace of mind. “My partner and I were essential workers and frontline staff to the community,” Talitha said. “If the day care (centre) had closed I would not have been able to work and possibly would have lost my contract.”

 

For further information, please view this link: COVID-19 information for the early childhood education and care sector

 

This story was first published on the Australian Government’s Department of Education, Skills and Employment website and is republished here with the kind permission of the author.

 

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