With childcare services starting to re-open next week, there's a real sense of life returning to normal. Except of course this is the new normal. Crèche drop-offs will be different, parents kept at bay, classes may be smaller.
Children often cope better than most with change, but it would be perfectly understandable if, after just getting used to spending every moment of the day at home with mam and dad, some little ones decided they weren't ready for their new normal when Monday comes around.
Dublin mum-of-three Melissa McDermott will be dropping her two eldest children, Skyler Kelly (5) and Piper Kelly (3) back to their crèche on Monday. "The eldest is fine, she knows she's going back and she just wants to see her friends, but the three-year-old is a little bit anxious," explains Melissa. "She knows that not everything is going to be the way it was and I've been trying to explain to her how I won't be able to go into the room with her now. She's enjoyed being at home and the other day she said to me 'will we just stay at home forever?' Monday is definitely going to be... eventful."
"I'd say we could have one or two crying and not wanting to come in," agrees Louise Gillick, manager of St Louise's Early Childhood Development Service, a Daughters of Charity Child and Family Service in Dublin's north inner city. "But hopefully after the first day everything will start to feel normal again."
Louise, who has been working at the crèche for 34 years, is mindful of the emotions faced by kids, parents and staff, at this period of transition. "It's a big change," she says. "I would be anxious leaving my three-year-old off." But she hopes that bringing in new measures and keeping families fully informed will go some way towards reassuring parents.
"We operate a high-scope curriculum, which means the children know everything that's going on and nothing is sprung on them," she explains. Throughout the lockdown staff have worked hard to keep contact up, organising Zoom meetings so the kids get to see their class.
In recent weeks, information has gone home about one-way systems, Covid-training completed by staff, changes to garden visit rotas, the need to apply sunscreen at home and send in spare clothes for children and new restrictions around drop-off.
"It's hard because we've spent years working on parental involvement and getting parents to come into the room and now I'll be collecting the children from the door and passing them to their room. It's a big change but I hope they trust us," says Louise.
As a parent, Melissa has felt hugely reassured by how much St Louise's, where her children attend, has done to reassure parents and believes keeping in touch with the kids through Zoom has helped alleviate some anxiety for her daughter.
"That's been so important," she says. "When they're little they think people just vanish if they don't see them for a while."
"But I don't want to overload them with information on the changes either," she adds. "I don't want to panic them. I've just tried to reassure them that things will be more or less the same and just keep washing your hands. They're very aware there's a bug going round. I work in a hospital and, even though I'd try not to talk too much about it in front of them, they do pick up on things."
Marian Quinn, chairperson for the Association of Childhood Professionals, says it's inevitable that many little ears will have picked up on adult worries. "Parents can expect their children to be nervous and have some level of anxiety about returning to their early-years setting. Remember, these children have been listening to adult concerns about Covid-19 and what we need to do to keep safe."
She continues: "Children should be reassured that the staff know how to keep them safe while playing with them and providing fun experiences that they can engage in with their friends. Talk to your child about the things they enjoyed doing pre-Covid and discuss the physical changes, if any, that have been made in the setting. If there are photos of the changes then explore them with the child. Normalise the new routine."
If all this sounds stressful and you're wondering if you might be better off just keeping your child home, then be assured that, even if there is a period of upheaval, it will be short-lived and now is the time to do it.
"Most children will stabilise in readjusting to social contact so long as it happens now," explains Joanna Fortune, a child and family psychotherapist and author of 15 Minute Parenting, although she concedes that readjustment might involve "some emotional and behaviour regression that could last six to eight weeks".
"Young children will need patience and tolerance and support and play," she explains. "Listen to your children, give them permission to talk about their feelings and the space to do so. Do not mimimise what worries them. Acknowledge you have heard them and empathise with how they are feeling before breaking down gently what scares them."
She also suggests using play to prepare them for what's coming (using toys to help them anticipate changes at crèche) as well as sensory play to take them out of their heads and using musical activities to help with emotional regulation.
"Be physically and emotionally available as they transition back," continues Joanna. "Anticipate some resistance and gently yet firmly support your child to push through it with patience and tolerance. Attend to your own emotional well-being once your children are back into their more typical routine - go for a walk, enjoy a hot coffee - and trust who you are leaving your children with."
Psychologist for the D4 clinic, Jason O'Callaghan, agrees. "As a psychologist and a parent of three children, I understand parents and children alike having some level of anxiety with the return to crèche next week," he says.
"As parents, we must reassure our children if they are worried, but more than that, we must trust in our childcare facilities and the advice from the medical experts. I for one, feel totally comfortable sending my three-year-old back to crèche.
"I trust the staff, I trust the management and in order to help my own anxiety, I think it is not just the best thing for her, but for all of us, to get back to some kind of normality. She needs her friends, her teachers and the play environment to learn.
"She deserves it and, as parents who, like most, have been close to breaking point over the past three months, I think we deserve it a little too."