Call for testing kits, staff payments as soaring infections force early learning closures

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Angela Hunt is struggling to staff her early learning centre and expects to shut the doors at any minute.

Ms Hunt, who is centre director of Sentia Early Learning in the CBD, has bought rapid antigen tests for staff to keep the centre running, but she has only six left.

Angela Hunt from Sentia Early Learning fears closures due to staff shortages.Credit:Joe Armao

“Our educators are extremely responsible and sometimes they want to get tested, but obviously it’s very difficult. It would be great if they had a way of ensuring that they are safe to come to work,” she said.

Such difficulties are common at early learning centres as COVID-19 circulates while there are still no vaccines for under-fives.

Eighty-three Victorian centres were closed on Wednesday, among hundreds nationwide.

Educators, who are poorly paid and predominantly women, are also over-represented in case numbers, according to the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute’s Sharon Goldfeld, who said early education and care had been hardest hit and needed the greatest attention.

As national cabinet prepares to meet on Thursday, unions and early learning advocates are calling for childcare and kindergarten educators to be given free rapid antigen tests and priority boosters, plus financial support for isolation and closures.

The United Workers Union and the Australian Education Union said educators were “frequently exposed to infection but have little support to get tested or to isolate. The sector relies heavily on casual workers, but these educators face financial insecurity and enormous pressure to return to work, potentially putting themselves and the community at risk.

“Centres face losing government funding if they close because they can’t find enough staff. The pressure on centres to stay open is enormous and places children at risk.”

Jay Weatherill, chief executive of Thrive by Five, which advocates for improvements to Australia’s early learning sector, said free rapid tests, clear guidelines for contact exposure and isolation, and subsidies for isolating staff were needed to stop the workforce crisis spiralling out of control.

“There is no reason the federal government and national cabinet cannot agree to these at their next meeting this week,” he said.

Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said on Wednesday that early education and schools would “not be immune from the impact on staff that we are seeing across the board across the nation”.

He said the government had ordered 44 million extra rapid antigen tests and these would be delivered throughout the month. Vaccination is compulsory among educators.

The most recent statement from the expert medical panel advising national cabinet on the pandemic said steps could be taken to prevent coronavirus incursion into early childhood settings.

These include hand and respiratory hygiene, good ventilation, regular environmental cleaning and mask wearing by all adults, moving activities outside, physical distancing among staff and putting groups of children into “bubbles” where feasible.

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