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'Pods' of playmates, regular handwashing and special drop-off points - how the government plans to reopen creches

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'PODS' of playmates for children, regular handwashing and special drop-off points are among a string of measures being considered for the reopening of creches next month.

Children's Minister Katherine Zappone outlined preliminary guidance for childcare providers as creches prepare to reopen for "essential workers" under the government roadmap as early as June 29.

Ms Zappone warned that the reopening of creches is "not zero risk" and that coronavirus transmission is expected.

She said there will be an incident "but we can manage it, not prevent it."

Ms Zappone said that reopening the childcare sector is "critical" to the well-being of children and parents and vital to restarting the economy and risks will be "minimised".

She told the Dáil that reopening the childcare sector is a "big step" and she is focused on supporting centre-based services and childminders.

"I don’t underestimate the challenge. Nor do I underestimate the anxiety for parents and childcare professionals," she said.

She outlined measures under consideration including:

  • "Pods" with small groups of children and the same staff member in the same room, with the same toys;
  • Regular handwashing "will be the norm at creche and playschool";
  • Staggered opening hours to limit interactions between parents;
  • Demarcated outdoor waiting areas for children and parents where staff can collect the child.

Ms Zappone ruled out social distancing for the children.

She said: "As a starting point it is important to acknowledge that children under 6 cannot do social distancing.

"Attempts at social distancing would be traumatic for children and for the adults that care for them.

"Young children have had enough to cope with, without having further abnormality thrust on them as we, hopefully, begin to emerge from this crisis," she said.

Fianna Fáil TD Anne Rabbitte criticised the government's failure to put in place a childcare scheme for health care workers.

The scheme - which would have seen childcare workers go into the child's home - failed because providers did not sign up due to concerns over insurance and public health fears.

Earlier, Ms Zappone defended the plans as the only option to provide childcare within the public health guidelines.

Ms Rabbitte raised concerns that providers won't sign up for the plan to reopen creches on June 29 adding that the "rumour on the ground" is "you may not have the buy in of all service providers".

She also asked about the definition of an essential worker.

Ms Zappone said an expert advisory group - including representatives of the sector - are working on the scheme and this will assist with many more providers signing up.

She said a survey is to be sent to childcare providers and parents that will feed into the plans.

She also predicted that demand will be "lower than anticipated because of the fear of parents for their children".

Earlier she said that parents "should know that their children will be in good hands" due to the qualifications of childcare staff and how "good hygiene practice is a cornerstone of their work". They will have further training on Covid-19.

She also pointed out that childcare has never been free of the risk of infection.

Ms Zappone said Covid-19 infection in children "appears to be no more frequent and probably less frequent than in adults" and are less likely to spread it.

It is also a less severe disease than in adults, those she said some doe get a serious illness - PIMS (Paediatric Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome) - which "is a cause of concern".

She said Professor Martin Cormican of the HSE is helping to plan for the reopening and the Norwegian model among others are being examined.

Pods would be put in place with a single staff member "as far as possible".

"They will play together and will be encouraged to stay together in this little POD. They will be encouraged to use outdoor space as much as possible."

Adults at the childcare centres will have to practice social distancing between each other.

Ways of limiting interactions between parents are being examined including staggered opening hours.

One option is for parents to remain in cars with staff collecting children from the vehicles.

For those that travel on foot there could be demarcated outdoor waiting areas where staff could collect the child.

Ms Zappone said: "Obviously, we will need to factor in sheltered spaces for when the weather is bad and any other mitigating factors that may arise."

She said that the advice is that children under six wearing face masks would be unlikely to contribute to improved infection control.

"The initial thinking in relation to the wearing of face masks by adults working in the childcare setting, is that this may not be practical," she said adding that this will be explored further.

Food preparation and serving will have to be done in a way that avoids the sharing of crockery and utensils.

Ms Zappone said: "This is a work in progress and we will be publishing detailed guidance as soon as possible."

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