A crisis is a terrible thing to waste – researchers give a voice to educator COVID pain
One consistent theme has emerged from the continuing pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 18 months – the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector are on one hand held up as essential frontline workers, whilst at the same time feeling voiceless and unheard.
Researchers are beginning to share their findings from throughout the pandemic, attempting to bring the challenges and trials faced by an increasingly disenfranchised sector to light. The latest contribution comes from Lisa Clements – Partnerships and Placement Coordinator and Connie Castellan – Senior Work Placement Officer for Holmesglen, who have shared their findings exclusively with The Sector.
“After every consultation we had with the ECEC sector during the height of the Victorian outbreak in 2020, a pattern began to emerge,” Ms Castellan said.
A feeling of voicelessness
“Directors and educators were lamenting that they were not being heard. They were not consulted on government policies directly affecting them. There was an absence of media coverage telling their stories. It was all about schools, teachers and working parents. Educators were speaking of low pay and an increased workload, but nobody was listening.”
This, Ms Clements said, was extraordinary, given the challenges early childhood educators were faced with. “Fluctuating attendance, closures, permit systems, misinformation or delayed communication while educating and caring for our most vulnerable…it’s incredibly difficult to continue to provide high quality education and care under these circumstances.”
“Educators felt they were without a voice, particularly during this pandemic where they were asked to pivot at the drop of a hat without recognition, consideration or respect,” she added.
Hearing this feedback consistently and loudly, Ms Castellan and Ms Clements undertook an applied research project into the impact of the pandemic on the ECEC sector. Rather than simply hearing the feedback and empathising, the researchers believed it was imperative to formalise the voice and experiences of the sector through Applied Research, using a qualitative methodology to the research with participants remaining anonymous.
The importance of anonymity
Educators and directors were frustrated, angry and despondent about their circumstances, but also fearful of reprisal for speaking out. For some, working as part of larger organisations, codes of conduct and confidentiality agreements prevented them from freely expressing their thoughts.
For others, there were concerns about professional reputational damage, or simply a sense that even if they did speak, they would not be truly heard.
This sentiment, Ms Castellan explained, was at the heart of the decision to give educators and directors an opportunity to share candidly and off the record.
Service leaders were asked to give their perspective on:
- Authorities: How did the government respond to the sector throughout the pandemic? How did they feel about the directives given to the sector from the government? What were these directives? How were they informed about confirmed or suspected infections? How were they notified about being shut down and by whom?
- Associations : Did the union, industry associations reach out?
- Families : What responses did they have from families? What channels were available for families to provide feedback or ask questions?
- Community : How did they feel about the community response to the sector? Do they think we need to change community perception of the ECEC sector and if so how?
- Wellbeing : How were Centre Directors’ feeling? How have the parents coped? From their perspective, how did their staff feel during this time? What feedback (if any) did they receive from their staff?
- Reactions and support/ Lessons Learned: What was the worst thing they encountered during the pandemic? What was one thing they appreciated most during this time? What have they learnt? Based on their experience, what advice would they give to future directors during a pandemic? What may be valuable in case of another crisis?
Services were contacted to participate in the research, with responses sought from services who had, and had not, dealt with being a COVID-19 exposure site.
The response pool was small, but telling, and reflected the anecdotal stories gathered by researchers during informal consultations.
Each of the respondents compared themselves to schools and teaching staff in the school environment. Notable responses were they felt “invisible” or “unnoticed” compared with teaching staff at schools. They lamented their lack of recognition in the media and broader community.
Respondents referred to themselves as “front line workers” who “carried a huge load for the community”.
The overarching feedback in all responses has been that the Directors of early childhood centres felt neglected, undervalued and not recognised whilst also being asked to put themselves on the front line and complete “a great deal” of additional work under duress.
Departmental responses: letting ECEC voices speak for themselves
Respondents were, in the main, critical of the support they received from organisations they expected to gain support from.
100 per cent of respondents gave negative feedback about the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The two centres closed due to COVID-19 cases both described a lack of information (and having to chase them for directives), lost paperwork and contact tracing, and overall confusion.
Each of the service directors who had been COVID exposure sites described in detail the experience of having to take the initiative in how and when to proceed in closing, cleaning and contact tracing and notifying staff and families.
“DHHS were a very big disappointment. They left us feeling stressed, anxious, and left in the dark with no answers,” one respondent shared. “I had no point of contact at the DHHS, so every time I called or emailed I had to wait for someone to respond, which at one point was six days. They incorrectly sent families the wrong quarantine messages, which broke confidentiality and privacy.”
“They did not contact trace until six days after the confirmed cases were reported, and I had to contact trace and inform families of the process about self-isolation, when, who, how, what and guide them through the entire process. We had the infectious disease team come out to provide feedback and advice on any improvements, which was organised with no notice until the morning of the inspection. They then never emailed through their suggestions of findings. On the 4th week of our closure, they lost all of our documents and we had about five different people contact us for the same document.”
The Department of Education and Training were also unfavourably reviewed by those who specifically referred to them in their survey response.
“The state and national government information was informative on a general basis, but I felt the Department of Education and Training failed to keep us consistently informed of our roles and their expectations of us as an industry (sic.). Their information always seemed too late. I found this very frustrating and forced us to choose our own path at times.”
With the exception of one, all participants stated feeling “tired” or “exhausted”. One said “I felt guilty, stressed and anxious.” Only one respondent said “proud and relieved”. When it came to staff wellbeing, leaders used phrases such as “frightened”, “worried”, “stressed”, “fearful” and “overwhelmed”.
Opportunities to grow and reflect
A core aspect of the research was seeking input from leaders and educators about what they had learnt from the experience. Chief amongst the recommendations of those with a lived experience of a COVID-19 exposure was “follow your gut instinct….don’t wait for the department to tell you what to do, just do it!”
Other lessons learned were to be flexible, open and transparent. The importance of open channels of communication with families and staff was also a theme in responses.
The research has now concluded, with both Ms Castellan and Ms Clements hoping that it will affect change.
“Government policy and attitudes towards the sector, community perceptions, and moreover the overall wellbeing of Early Childhood Educators are considered in this research and are mostly left wanting,” Ms Clements said.
“We would like to provide a platform, through the publication of our findings, to raise the profile of the issues uncovered by our research in the next three to six months.”
To access the research please see here.