Holiday care programs scaled back, cancelled due to staff shortages

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School holiday care providers are slashing hours and cancelling programs as COVID-19 staffing shortages force dozens of educators into isolation and parents scramble to find alternative care.

The significant disruption to after-care programs foreshadows the challenges ahead for the education sector, including how schools will cope as rising infections threaten teacher and student absences.

Children from a Lane Cove Vacation Care play in the Royal Botanic Gardens.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Michael Abela, president of the Outside School Hours Council of Australia, which represents major providers, said some were reporting 25 per cent of their students had withdrawn from holiday care this week. That was on top of bookings already being down 40 to 50 per cent on normal levels.

“There have been a lot of families quarantining as well some people being a little bit risk averse,” he said. “And of course our staff, we’ve got a lot of them quarantining and that’s causing challenges in terms of the logistics of organising services.”

He said providers were facing a choice between cancelling services, cutting hours or capping the number of children they could take.

“We’re seeing [services] at a reduced state, which puts a significant financial burden on providers. We want to be there for families and children. The sector is working its hardest to make things work but at the moment we are openly seeking support from the federal government,” Mr Abela said.

“We’re also now very conscious about what the impact will be when school resumes. We’re hoping school resumes on time, that’s what we’re planning for. But we’re expecting to see similar rolling disruptions.”

The NSW government is expected to announce its back-to-school plan in the coming week including the roll-out of a “test-to-stay” program. It has been resolute that students will return on February 1.

Prominent health experts, including mental health advocate Patrick McGorry and epidemiologist Catherine Bennett, have written an open letter to state and federal governments urging them to commit to a return to face-to-face learning “without delay” from term one, despite the soaring infections.

“There is no medical case for face-to-face learning to be suspended awaiting the vaccination of 5- to 11-year-old children, although all children should be offered access as soon as possible,” they wrote.

“Our own Australian data confirms COVID-19 is a mild disease in children, that the few hospitalisations are short-lived and that the overwhelming majority of children recover from this virus without adverse effect.”

About 35,000 children nationwide aged between 5 and 11 received their first vaccine dose on Monday, their first day of eligibility. However, parents have reported multiple cancelled appointments prompting the college of GPs to call for states and territories to open additional clinics and the federal government to better manage deliveries.

“Urgent improvements to the children’s vaccine rollout must happen now so that our kids can receive at least one vaccine dose before returning to the classroom,” college president Dr Karen Price said.

About 430 early childhood centres were closed nationally on Tuesday due to COVID-19 or other public health emergencies, including 292 in NSW, which spans both early learning centres and vacation care services.

Oliver Murphy, director of West Ryde Before and After School Care vacation care program, said at least 60 children were left without holiday care this week after three days of the program were cancelled due to staff shortages.

“Parents are frustrated, and they have had no warning,” he said. “Unless we see changes to isolation rules this will keep happening. We don’t have enough educators to operate. There might be changes to isolation contact requirements but whether that’s a good idea or not is another question.”

In an email to parents at Bellevue Hill Public School, Kids Club OSHCare said the service was “unable to cover shifts” with many of staff “either affected by COVID-19 or in isolation”.

“We have been forced to change our operating hours,” the email read. “We are doing our best to find a way to continue to operate during the holidays.”

In western Sydney, Sharon Culhane, manager of Activity Centres, was forced to consolidate her Toongabbie West and Girraween school holiday programs onto one site after a number of her staff either tested positive or were identified as close contacts.

“I know that parents are now having to drive six kilometres of a morning to get them there – but we just didn’t have a choice,” she said.

Ms Culhane said it was becoming harder to hire staff, due to both the infection risk and the strain placed on workers to meet standards with reduced numbers. She was critical of communication from the government, noting the rules for close contacts and the steps needed to return safely to work had changed so frequently it had been difficult to keep up.

“Before COVID our sector had a critical shortage of staff, but with Omicron the shortage is more than critical,” said Pauline O’Kane, CEO of the Network of Community Activities, the peak body for out of school hours care providers in NSW.

Ms O’Kane said many in the sector’s young workforce, particularly people in their 20s, were not yet eligible for booster doses after becoming eligible late in the vaccination rollout.

“Vacation care employs a lot of young people, and a lot of young people are getting COVID,” she said, noting many providers had either reduced their hours of operation or their intake to get by with fewer available staff.

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