Meeting the challenges of COVID-19: members tell their story
Our union acknowledges the outstanding professional efforts of our early childhood education members who have continued to work to provide quality education throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here IEU journalist Emily Campbell speaks with two members, Borilla Community Kindergarten Director Jenny Finlay and Oakleigh Community Kindergarten Director Vikki Hartog about their experiences.
What were the biggest challenges or obstacles early childhood education teachers and assistants faced having to work during the pandemic?
Jenny: Like many others during this pandemic, the biggest challenge was not knowing. This unknown was all encompassing: Where we were heading? What was expected of us? How were we to keep the kindy operational? What policies needed to be adapted? What practices needed to be modified? How we were to deliver the home program? The expectations of reporting to Early Childhood Education and Care during this time.
Vikki: Professionally coming to grips with the reality of the pandemic seemed quite surreal in the beginning. We had to make changes in anticipation of something invisible arriving in our midst. Working out what to offer children in this age group at home, something in line with our philosophy at the centre but that would not be too draining on parents and also looking after our own wellbeing when there was so much uncertainty was important as we worked with families.
How important was the QFKS top-up payment to keep kindergartens operating during the pandemic?
Jenny: This was vital. Without this, the kindergartens could not have remained viable. It was also administered quickly, with fairly painless reporting.
Vikki: Funding to enable our centre to stay open was vital for working families and vulnerable children. It also reassured families at home that there was hope for the future as we were still operating and ready to take all children back when it was deemed safe.
How did young children respond to the change and were you surprised by their ability to adapt?
Jenny: Children have responded in different ways. Some children have taken the changes in their stride whist others have not, becoming anxious and withdrawn.
Vikki: The children adapted quite easily according to feedback from parents. Many children reported missing their friends, teachers, kindy and routine. Some families reported the impact greater than other families who enjoyed not having to be anywhere by a certain time. This probably reflected the ages of siblings, those with older siblings have more commitments outside the home (school, sport, friends etc).
What has been the most positive thing to come from COVID-19 for staff working in early childhood education and children?
Jenny: Like the children, some staff have thrived in this environment. I think many teachers and assistants have surprised themselves with how adaptable and flexible they have been, learning new skills very quickly!
Vikki: Most positive thing for staff - we have always valued following correct procedures and having open lines of communication, but we have felt very supported and valued by the family community at this time.
How do you think society’s views of early childhood education teachers and assistants has changed or been challenged throughout the pandemic?
Jenny: One would hope that since kindy was put in the “important box” of the first round of education start-ups that society would begin to see that it is such a vital time in a child’s learning. Unfortunately, many politicians spoke of early childhood education as being necessary for the return of parents to the workforce, not relating to child’s learning development. Early childhood education teachers and assistants were often only referred to as an afterthought, particularly at a federal government level.
Vikki: I don't feel that society in general appreciates the role of early childhood education teachers. I've heard lots of positive acknowledgement of how hard primary and secondary school teachers have worked but outside of our enrolled families the feedback I hear is that we are “childminding” so parents can work.
How has working during this time informed your professional judgements as an early childhood education worker?
Vikki: Working during this pandemic has highlighted the value of community, of establishing a sense of belonging, especially when working remotely with families. The qualities that we have always instilled in our program about connection, relationships, resilience, self regulation, communication, slowing down, time in nature, have now been discussed, especially on social media as important values. I've also been interested in nature kindergartens for a number of years. Now it seems there has never been a healthier time to be outside more. I feel this will give us an impetus to pursue being outside more. The changes we have made to our program are being made with "this is our new normal" in mind and not just making short term changes for example, we now start our day outside, so we don't have parents and siblings inside the building.
How has your workload and that of your colleagues been affected by balancing online teaching with face-to-face teaching of essential workers’ children?
Jenny: The workload has been beyond huge. Personally, I have been working from home coordinating 20 staff, designing online learning, managing policy updates and changes, reporting to central governing bodies and government, making videos, holding online sessions and connecting with all families. All of this whilst still being expected to connect with community. There has never been a workload like this in 35 years of teaching. Now, returning to work in week 5 has seen another catch up of all the loose ends. This hectic pace will continue for quite some time.
Vikki: My workload has more than doubled as we worked with children at the kindy, prepared resources for families to pick up, shared stories, videos and information online and responded to many more emails than is usually the case.
What has IEUA-QNT membership meant for you during this unprecedented time?
Jenny: As always, being a member of a union has meant that there has been someone there to advocate on our behalf and to provide clarity when we are unsure, as early childhood education is such a segmented sector.
Vikki: Membership of our union is an essential part of my working life. It's incredibly reassuring to know I have someone to call or email if I have any question about what my employer requires of me. It has also made me more aware of my rights as an employee.