Accessing childcare: Your questions answered

With schools open only to the children of key workers and vulnerable children, and additional restrictions associated with Covid-19 now in force, many parents and childcare providers may have questions about what is and is not permitted in terms of accessing and providing childcare. This article collates some of the frequently asked questions from parents and childcare providers during the current restrictions.

Please note, this applies to Northern Ireland only – different restrictions may be in place in other parts of the UK. This is a fluid situation, so this guidance is based on our current understanding but is subject to change. We will continue to keep our website and social media up to date as the situation evolves.

  • Questions from parents

Can I still use registered childcare services?

Yes, registered childcare providers can operate as usual, including day care, childminding, crèche and school age childcare out of school/holiday provision. This includes registered childcare providers operating from school sites, community centres, places of worship, leisure centres and sports venues – so long as the current regulations allow the venue to open for this activity. Nannies or Approved Home Childcare providers can also continue to provide childcare in a family’s home. All families should be able to access these services, which are not restricted to the children of key workers.

There is guidance to help childcare settings ensure that their services are safe.

However, all pre-school education settings, including those with registered childcare settings, are required to provide remote learning to pupils until the half-term break in mid-February, with the exception of vulnerable children and children of key workers who will have access to schools for supervised learning.

Can I continue to send my children to school if I have to work?

All pupils within pre-school education settings, primary and post primary schools will receive remote learning at home until the half term break in mid-February. Schools (post-primary, primary and pre-school education providers – including those located in childcare settings) are currently required to open to provide ‘supervised learning’ for the children of key workers and vulnerable children only. Only one parent has to be a key worker to avail of this provision. To find out more, and for the definition of a key worker for this purpose, visit the Department of Education website.  Special schools will remain open as usual.

Can I travel to access childcare for my child?

Yes – while you may only leave your home for essential travel, this includes to provide, access or receive childcare.

Can I move my child to a different childcare setting?

If you wish to move your child to a different setting, for example to access more childcare, then you will need to discuss with your childcare provider what notice period you need to give to remove your child from the setting.

Can my child attend more than one setting, for example a day care setting and a childminder, or attend school and a childcare setting?

Yes, it is recognised within guidance from the Departments of Health and Education that there are circumstances in which children may move between education and childcare facilities.

If your child becomes symptomatic or develops Covid-19, they would need to stop attending all education and childcare provision, and you would need to inform each provider.  If your child is asked to isolate as a close contact in one setting or due to contact outside of childcare, they should not attend any setting. Further information for parents is available here.

Can I use family or friends as informal childcare?

Informal childcare arrangements are permitted to continue. Children should not be cared for outside of their home if they are ill, or by anyone who is ill.

Informal childcare is valuable, trusted care provided by grandparents and close family. It is not to be confused with unregistered childcare, which is provided by those who are not formally registered but who charge a fee for their services. Unregistered childcare is illegal.

What are my options if I am struggling to balance work while providing care and supporting my child’s remote education?

It will be important that employers can take a flexible approach with their employees as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be felt. There are a number of options that may be available for employees who are required to stay at home with their children ranging from furlough, to dependent’s leave or annual leave. More information is available here.

I am now paying for additional childcare, am I entitled to financial support?

There are a range of support schemes available to help parents with their childcare costs including Childcare Vouchers, Tax-Free Childcare, Universal Credit and Tax Credits. If your costs have increased, depending on the support you are accessing, you may be entitled to additional help. Give our Family Benefits Advice Service a call on Freephone 0800 028 3008 or email hello@employersforchildcare.org and one of our skilled advisors will be able to calculate exactly what support you may be entitled to, including how this may be impacted if you are in receipt of support through one of the Government’s Covid-19 support schemes.

What are childcare providers doing to protect children and staff?

The Chief Medical Officer has previously advised that there is clear evidence the great majority of children who experience Covid-19 have mild or no symptoms and make a full recovery. Evidence gathered through the pandemic to date indicates that child-to-child and child-to-adult transmission of Covid-19 in childcare settings is not common.

In consideration of the scientific and medical evidence, alongside the negative impact that early years and school closures were having on the health and wellbeing of children and the capacity of parents to return to work, settings and childminders have been permitted to open to all children since June 2020, with robust infection prevention and control measures in place. The full guidance being followed by the childcare sector – both to protect children, and staff – is available here. Whilst there is no evidence at this stage to suggest transmission of the new strain of Covid-19 causes more serious illness in either children or adults, settings continue to minimise the risks of transmission of either strain through strict compliance with the Department of Health’s Covid-19 Childcare Guidance.

Many parents continue to express their confidence in the measures being implemented, and in the benefits to their children and the family overall in accessing childcare.

If I am not using childcare temporarily, will I still be expected to pay my childcare provider?

This will depend on a number of factors, including what is set out in your service contract, and can vary from provider to provider. Many providers will not charge a fee, or will re-credit your account, if they are closed and are unable to offer your usual service. However, if your provider is open as usual but it is your choice not to use the place, then you may be expected to pay a retainer fee. You should discuss this with your childcare provider, and may wish to refer to guidance from the Competition and Markets Authority if you have any concerns. This is a challenging time financially for parents and for childcare providers, contact our Family Benefits Advice Service to discuss what support you may be entitled to.

Are parks and playgrounds permitted to open?

Yes, outdoor parks and playgrounds can remain open for outdoor exercise. Childcare providers who take children in their care outside for exercise will be exempt from the restrictions regarding the numbers of people/households permitted to exercise together as they will be carrying out their work duties.

The benefits of outdoor play to children are significant and keeping parks and playgrounds open supports children’s mental and physical health and wellbeing. Outdoor environments are lower risk in relation to Covid-19 transmission compared to indoor play settings.

However, risk cannot be eliminated, and parents and guardians, as well as childcare providers, are encouraged to ensure playgrounds do not get too busy, and take responsibility for social distancing. In particular, you must not arrange to meet with other households at playgrounds and should not socialise there.

We also encourage frequent handwashing or sanitisation, not eating or drinking in parks, wiping down equipment with your own wipes, and maintaining low numbers within parks and on equipment by taking turns or using parks at less busy times.

Operators of parks and playgrounds need to follow existing guidance in order to be open.

  • Questions from childcare providers

Do I have to further restrict my childcare services at this time, for example in terms of numbers of children?

No, childcare providers can continue to provide their services in line with the Minimum Standards and in accordance with current guidance which emphasises the importance of settings adopting and maintaining rigorous infection prevention and control measures.

My setting is based in a community hall, church hall/chapel hall/leisure centre/sports venue, can I still operate?

Yes, provided these are your normal premises and the current regulations allow the venue to be open for this activity.

I can’t operate in the way I normally would because of Covid-19 (e.g. my staff are having to self-isolate or I cannot access the premises where my services would normally run). Is funding available to help me through this period of temporary disruption?

You may be able to apply for financial support. At present, there are two Covid-19 related funds available to childcare providers in Northern Ireland (both close to applications on 5 February 2021):

Childcare Sustainability Support Fund: This Fund is designed to further support the sustainability of the childcare sector in Northern Ireland, building on a previous financial recovery scheme, to help childcare providers that have opened – or remained open – in the period 1 September to 31 December 2020. The Scheme is being administered by Early Years – the organisation for young children, on behalf of the Department of Education

Short-term closure Support Fund: This Fund is designed to provide financial assistance for Covid-19 related closures in the childcare sector between September and December 2020 and is now open for applications. Funding will be allocated based on the type and / or size of a setting, and the length of period of closure. Funding has also been allocated for childcare providers located on school sites who were unable to operate due to school closures between 19 and 30 October 2020.

Both schemes are being administered by Early Years – the organisation for young children, on behalf of DE. You will find more information on their website.

Work is currently ongoing with to assess the support providers will require for the period January to March.

Other schemes may also be available, for example, the Coronavirus Job Support Scheme for providers that employ staff, or the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme for childminders. Call our Family Benefits Advice Service on 0800 028 3008 for personalised guidance on what you may be entitled to.

Can I travel to my childcare setting to work although it is some distance from my home?

Yes, you are allowed to travel to provide, access or receive childcare.

If I or any of my staff have children, can we send them to school?

Yes, the key worker list for the purposes of accessing schools for supervised learning, includes those who work in education and childcare. The full list is available here.

Could some of my workforce be required to shield?

Guidance is available for people, including children, who are extremely vulnerable to developing serious illness if they are exposed to coronavirus because they have a particular serious underlying health condition.

For staff who were previously shielding or are worried about being at higher risk of more serious symptoms, a COVID-19 workforce risk assessment should be completed. Staff are encouraged to share the results with their employer who may then take appropriate action.

Can I still accept placement students who work at my setting as part of the process for achieving their qualification and the assessors who assess them?

Yes, placement students are considered as staff and assessors from training providers would be considered essential visitors to ensure that practitioners are able to gain their qualifications.

Similarly, inspectors may be required to visit a childcare setting however this will be undertaken so as to manage any potential risk of infection.

Any other questions?

If you have questions regarding accessing or providing childcare during the current period of restrictions, which have not been answered here, please contact our Family Benefits Advice Service on 0800 028 3008 or email hello@employersforchildcare.org.