Parents should not have to pay extra for new safety measures needed for the restart of childcare services next month, said a leading creche owner.
The Government must provide the extra funding and give full details of anti-Covid guidelines for creches as soon as possible to allow childcare professionals and parents enough time to prepare, said Louise Kilbane.
She acknowledged there has been considerable State investment in childcare in recent years but said the Government has the opportunity now to boost funding to ensure childcare services in Ireland finally reach international standards.
Her Lollipop Lane creches in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo, and Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, care for 250 children with 30 staff.
Creches will reopen in Ireland for children of essential workers on June 29 and fully reopen for everybody on July 20 if the phased reopening of the country remains on schedule.
She recalled her feelings of dread before Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced in mid-March that all childcare facilities and schools must close within 24 hours.
She was glad Children's Minister Katherine Zappone indicated social distancing will not be attempted for children aged under six. The minister's flagging of proposed 'pods', using designated staff to care for specific children within creches, was an idea she had been considering herself, she said.
The minister indicated that outdoor waiting areas for parents and staggered opening times for different groups of children are under consideration by those devising the new childcare safety guidelines.
She deeply values her links with the creche children and their parents. Concerned parents asked how new rules might affect creche services. "I tell them I'm waiting for the guidelines. It would be very unfair and unprofessional of me to promise something that I don't know about just yet," she said.
She believed many areas will need to be addressed when full details are released, including what extra floor spaces in creches will be required and what changes in adult-to-child ratios will be needed.
A native of Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare, she lives in Collooney, Co Sligo, with her husband, Fergal, and their two children. She lectures on early childhood education and care at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.
"When I closed the doors that evening in March, I felt great sadness and the silence - the silence of the building in Tubbercurry which was always so happy and so full of laughter and people joking and smiling and talking. There is no greater sound in this world than children laughing and happy children playing together.
"When that silence kicked in, I was quite emotional. These families were part of my life for 15 years. Some children I haven't seen for 10 weeks now, where I used to see them every week for the last 14 years," she said.
Amid the sadness felt by her staff, there was also a sense of relief that they would all be keeping their jobs. She particularly welcomed signs that social distancing would not be sought for young children. There was no way a child who needed to be comforted would be denied a hug or physical comfort.
The emphasis on hand-washing is not a problem for young children as children have shown they can be very good at keeping rules and following instructions, especially when they can be taught as part of a game. Adults often do not give children credit for their abilities, she said.
For some children, the creche is the safe place in their lives. Children may be living in difficult circumstances, there may be stress or illness at home. For such children, their creche is the place where they can be happy and have fun.
She said the role of early childhood education has been undervalued in Ireland and the Government has the opportunity to fund the widespread raising of standards to international levels.
The reopening of the country cannot be completed without the reopening of the nation's childcare services, she said.