Hypervigilance is wearing ECEC educators down as the pandemic continues
Many early childhood education and care (ECEC) professionals are still feeling the effects of hypervigilance, researchers have found. These feelings persist despite the absence of active COVID-19 outbreaks in their community, more than 18 months on from the initial introduction of the virus into Australia in March 2020.
As frontline workers, early childhood educators have faced enormous challenges during lockdowns and faced a continuously changing policy and health and safety landscape and this is taking its toll, a new joint study has found.
Undertaken by Dr Marg Rogers from the University of New England, Associate Professor Wendy Boyd from Southern Cross University and Professor Margaret Sims from Macquarie University, the research has shown that the rolling impacts of pandemic-driven change continue to challenge the ECEC sector as a collective.
During the national lockdown in March 2020, enrolments in many services fell to around 10-15 per cent, meaning casual educators lost their jobs. While some early childhood services were able to eventually get Jobkeeper, others did not qualify because they were part of larger organisations, such as universities. Childcare and early childhood education were also the first services to lose Jobkeeper, signalling the beginning of a taxing period of change and uncertainty.
Service leaders faced a number of challenges when it came to supporting the welfare and wellbeing of their staff teams, given the long waits for many staff to receive support from Centrelink, as well as being concerned about the impact to their businesses should they have lost their reliable pool of casuals when the bulk of families returned.
Parents were sharing their fears about the virus and asking directors for advice about whether they should keep their children at home. Directors felt they didn’t have the information they needed to answer this, because the situation was constantly changing, and medical advice was shifting, the researchers learned.
Time was taken from the many elements of the day-to-day running of a service to undertake new priority tasks such as creating safety plans, re-working rosters, and submitting applications for JobKeeper. Directors shared with the researchers that they felt pressured to “constantly show governing bodies and boards what the staff were doing in terms of working with children face-to-face and online, taking part in professional development and developing online resources for families and children.”
Media coverage was mentioned as a source of frustration to staff, with many stories focussing on “hero worship” of some essential workers, such as medical staff, while ignoring other essential workers, such as early childhood educators who were afraid for their welfare, and that of their families as they went to work each day, the researchers said.
The frustrations for Directors and ECEC staff was further compounded, the researchers heard, by the Australian Government’s announcement that ECEC services would be made available free of charge for families, which for many meant “a large and sudden influx of new families who normally didn’t access childcare”.
While the enrolments supported services to stay afloat at a time when support was much needed, the arrival of new families meant greater risk, something which participants told researchers was a source of fear.
“They were frightened of where the families had come from and if they had been in contact with the virus. The new children were also unsettled because they were not used to childcare,” researchers noted.
The need to be able to rapidly inform stakeholders of exposure to the virus was also a pain point for many leaders, with one Director sharing that she had “moments of panic” if she didn’t have contact details for all families, staff, cleaners, relevant departments, board members, management bodies and regulators with her at all times.
Directors expressed that they often felt exhaustion during the pandemic, constantly checking websites and feeling hyper-vigilant. Despite the many challenges, they also shared that parents were, by and large, very appreciative of what educators did for children via online connections, with some offering to continue to pay fees when the children were not attending to support the ongoing viability of the service.
There was a difference in what parents seemed to want in terms of how often they wanted to engage with the service and the types of connection they wanted, researchers said.
“Educators were expected to suddenly learn how to use new technology to communicate with families, and even with each other in socially distant staff meetings. Interestingly, some of these practices have stayed in place.”
While families and children gradually returned after major lockdowns parents noticed the new changes for security and social distancing “took some time to get used to.”
Some parents were fearful of the new families because they were unsure if they had come from areas where there were virus outbreaks. Educators had to assure parents the new families were known to the staff and were local.
In one service, children returning were excited to see each other but took some time to play with each other again. They had become used to playing by themselves, so it took educator scaffolding to support joint play episodes.
When asked for their overall perceptions at this duration of the pandemic, respondents shared that they felt a sense of pride in relation to the way that families and educators had adapted to the changes put before them, and for the sector as a whole.
The treatment of the sector throughout the pandemic had renewed respondents’ sense of purpose and advocacy, and an urgency to speak up on behalf of their fellow professionals.
The research team expects to publish the data in coming months, both in an Australian context, and more broadly through the international research group European Early Childhood Education Research in Education (EECERA) Professionalism Special Interest Group. Both a paper and a book chapter about the impacts of COVID-19 are in press, awaiting publisher finalisation.
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