Transcript of March 27 2020 livestream


Good afternoon. My name is Martin Graham and I'm the executive director of early childhood education here at the New South Wales Department of Education. I'd like to start by acknowledging that I come to you today from the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I pay my respects to elders past, present, and emerging and I'd also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that you made on today. It's been just over a week since our last online hook-up and for everyone, I think it's fair to say, it has been a period of unbelievable dislocation and enormous uncertainty for all of us.

I've spoken to many of you, I've spoken to your representatives, and I've also spoken to services, and I know that you're concerned for the children in your care and their families, first and foremost. But I also know, and I've spoken to many of you, who are contemplating or having had the heartbreaking conversations about letting staff go or standing them down.

So what can we do today? Well, today we'll provide you with an update and answer many of the questions that you've sent in, or questions that you asked last time and we were unable to answer at that time. So we have, in separate locations around Sydney, we have three of our directors, Glenda Buckley, Abi Weldon-Chan and Kristie Brown, who you would've seen in the last broadcast as well. So we will ask your questions and I'll cross to them across Sydney and I'll answer as many as possible.

And I hope you bear with us through this technology. We are putting in place social distancing practices and we're trying not to be in the same place at the same time for important business continuity as well. I want to address, straight up, that many of you have questions about Commonwealth and CCS funding in particular. Unfortunately, we're not going to be able to answer those questions, however, we will be passing them through to the Commonwealth, so that they know exactly what information gaps you have and in the hope that you'll be able to get your questions answered as soon as possible.

So what's happened in the last 10 days? Well, the overall advice for early childhood services has not changed at this point. On health advice, they are safe to remain open. However, we do know that the advice to parents to keep their children away from school, if at all possible, has meant that many parents are also choosing to keep their children out of early childhood services as well. And we know that that's caused issues for you. I'm going to address some of those today.

Today, this is Friday, 27 March if you're watching the recording, National Cabinet is also meeting. And this is the place where significant decisions are taken about what level of restrictions to apply. If the current advice changes as a result of any of these meetings, we'll inform you as soon as possible. And that will be on our website, also via email.

And you can subscribe to our SMS service to be able to get information about when those advice change. This week we've also seen Minister Sarah Mitchell announce a number of actions for us. The first one is changing the way our front-line services operate, quite significantly. And I'll ask Glenda to take you through that in a moment.

We've also guaranteed Start Strong payments for 2020 and we're asking the department to look at how we go about implementing major reforms at this time, understanding things are definitely not normal. Yesterday our Minister also met with many of your peak bodies through the New South Wales Advisory Group and she did hear, firsthand, the issues that you are facing.

Since last week, we've also been able to publish a set of frequently asked questions, some of which we'll go through today, as they were the most important topics that you wanted us to cover. But you'll also find them on our website.

So first, I'd like to start by going to our team to talk to you, not just about how we're addressing the current issues, but how we're operating, which will give you an idea of what might happen as things change. Glenda, would you be able to take us through what's happening to support the front line at this time?

Sure, thank you Martin. I guess I'd like to also start by acknowledging the really critical work that the sector continue to do, supporting children and families. For us in the Reg Authority, the safety of children remains our highest priority. We understand that there's a lot going on for the sector and as a result, we've established a COVID support team. So this team actually is available to help you with a range of support and advice. So for example, if you need support around keeping children safe in your service, this could be things like ideas for improving hygiene practices, it could be things like advice for messaging to parents and families, it could also be things like supporting you to access emergency cleaning and hygiene products in extreme circumstances.

We're providing resources through that team, directing you in relation to the types of financial support that's available as it becomes announced by the Australian government. And where services are really struggling to ensure the safety of children due to things like supervision ratios or other issues, we'll work with services to help you suspend your services well. And so what I mean by that, is this may mean us making regulatory decisions to suspend a service approval where there's an immediate risk to the health and safety of children.

It may mean supporting families that need to find alternative placements. It may mean encouraging families to stay enrolled where they can and to use allowable absences to ensure that when this is over, they still have their places and can support services to rebuild. It may mean supporting families to access financial hardship provisions and directing them to the right places for that where that's appropriate. It also may mean helping services to think about what they can do to maintain connections with families and children during any period of suspension or shutdown.

So to access that team, I would encourage you to go through our normal channels, our information inquiries line and emails. And we've literally stood that team up in the last few days. We've got a bunch of really dedicated officers in there who are really willing to help and wanting you to reach out. We're also working differently. So many of our officers are working from home-base locations as many of us are, and so discovering the challenges of Skype and different things.

However, we also still have officers out in the field and coming out to services where that's critical, and in some cases, still undertaking assessment and rating. And I think we have a question coming up about that later, so I'll talk about it then. OK, thank you Martin.

Thank you very much. Thanks very much for that, Glenda. I'll now turn to Abi. If you can take us through what kind of steps you're taking in regulatory policy.

Thank you Martin. Yes, so this time has been a very busy time for our regulatory policy and strategy areas, and that includes our approvals team. And now, our approvals team are in contact with services, with you every day. They're taking all of your applications for ratio and qualification waivers and they also undertake, similar to Glenda’s team, visits out to services, regarding things like changes to space or increases to maximum numbers and changes or alterations to premises.

So we have undertaken to call all of our services where a visit will be due, double-check with you, to make sure that you are still comfortable with us coming to your service. And if you're not, then we will rearrange those visits to a time that does suit you.

We know that many services are restricting the number of visitors that are coming into your premise and we absolutely respect that and we will work with you to ensure that we can conduct the visits we need to conduct at a time in the approval space, certainly, that works for you.

We've also been hearing that along with your applications for ratio waivers and for qualification waivers, which we are expediting, and which we are then refunding, or if we can, not actually charge a fee in the first place, but we're certainly refunding those that do require a fee submission.

We've also heard from you that some services are finding it challenging to ensure that they have their first aid anaphylaxis and emergency asthma management qualifications current.

Now we have heard also from some of the qualification providers that they are not actually, continuing with the face to face practicum aspects of this. And so we would encourage you to submit any online training as we come into June, but we are aware, and we will take a common-sense approach obviously, to any issues in regard to being able to undertake the practicum components of your courses.

We'd also ask you to look at the rostering that you might have available, particularly for a centre-based service, to see that if you can manage within your rostering, for one staff member or the nominated supervisor, to be immediately available with those qualifications current in case there is an emergency that occurs at your service. Thank you Martin.

Thanks. Now I'd like to ask Kristie Brown to just give you a quick overview of how we're approaching funding at this time.

Thanks Martin. So the funding landscape for early childhood education services can be quite complex. So I'm particularly focused in what I talk about now, on community preschools and mobile preschools. So these are the two types of services that the New South Wales government has primary funding responsibility for.

So as Martin said, I apologise if your primary funding is through CCS and I'm sorry I can't provide you with more information around that, but I'm sure Martin will talk a little bit about the work that we're doing with the Commonwealth in that space.

But for those community and mobile preschools, there were two, I suppose, significant announcements that have been made since the last time we talked to you, that I just want to make you aware of, if you're not already. So firstly, that for those community preschools who receive Start Strong funding, the minister has announced that that funding will be maintained through till December 2020.

So what that essentially means for you is regardless of your decrease in enrolment, and I think many of you have told us that you are experiencing a decrease in enrolments at the moment, so regardless of your decrease in enrolments, that funding will continue to be calculated based on your August 2019 Annual Preschool Survey data.

So that, obviously, was a time before COVID-19 impacted the enrolments of services. And that means that your July and October payments will continue and will be based on that calculation. Now, the intention behind that funding, as Martin has said, the advice from the government is that at this stage, is that early childhood education services can and should continue to operate. So the intention behind that announcement, is to support services, to continue to meet those operational costs. So that means things like staffing, rent, potentially food, the kinds of day to day costs that you have that are associated with the delivery of your educational programs.

Where you can, it has always been possible and it is obviously still possible, for you to use that Start Strong funding to make fees as low as possible for families. Now those arrangements are set between families and individuals services. So they're not set by the department.

The department doesn't tell you what fee to charge a particular type of family or a particular type of enrolment. But you can continue to use that funding to minimise fees to families, whether, you know, in the usual course of events as you usually would. In relation to mobile preschool, so mobile preschool funding contracts have been extended through till December 2020.

So again, the intention behind that is to provide some stability to mobile preschools in what is, you know, an incredibly difficult and unstable time. For many of you who aren't necessarily funded through those funding streams, but might receive other scheduled payments from the department, we are continuing to progress the scheduled payments that are due to be made in April 2020. So that includes, obviously, the Start Strong payments and the mobile preschool payments.

But it also includes, Start Strong Pathways, the Occasional Care Grants program, Vacation Care Grants program, Early Childhood Projects Grants program, and where services haven't transitioned to other funding sources, the Long Day-care Grants program. It also includes, for those community preschools that receive higher learning support needs funding, funding through that program. Now, whilst we're obviously progressing those payments, there are, I suppose, program guidelines and funding agreements that are in place around all of those different kinds of funded programs.

So those funding agreements still apply. So where you're required to provide notification of periods of closure. or information about individual children and their enrolments, you need to continue to do that. We're obviously working through what those arrangements mean for particular funded streams. And I don't, you know, I'll be honest, I don't have all the information about all of that detail at this point.

We are working through it and we're working through it, you know, as quickly as we can. And where those decisions are made, we'll provide you with further detailed guidance, both through the FAQs or through any of the alternative mechanisms of communication that Martin's already outlined. So expect to see more information as we work through some of that detail.

And, you know, certainly I know that myself and my team have been in contact with a number of services who are concerned about their funding situation and we do want to continue to be able to support you and to engage with that. So if you do need support, just to make sure that you're reaching out to contact us, either through the numbers that Martin has shared already to contact the department, or through the ECEC funding email, which is Thanks Martin.

Thank you Kristie. Well, we'll now turn to the questions that you've sent in and we'll be asking different directors to answer it. So hopefully, we’ve managed to get this right. The first question, I think Kristie's answered a lot of it, but the question was about, what support will be available to stand-alone, not-for-profit community preschools in this time of financial hardship?

But additionally, we're not included in the government's financial relief packages, who is advocating for us? I might just add the answer to this question, which is we've already met twice this week with the reference group and with your advocates. Every day we're in touch with them. I know they're working hard with government as well and we're certainly hearing loud and clear and working with government. And the message is that the current packages, you know, will support something, but they won't necessarily keep the sector here.

And we all are very concerned to make sure we have a viable sector on the other side of the virus. So I might move on to question two, which is from Donna, a centre director. What is the - and this is a question for Glenda, just to get Glenda ready. What is the process if a parent has a doctor's certificate stating the child is unfit for school for two days, then the day after the doctor's certificate runs out, the family brings the child to the service, the child seems well, happy and engaged at drop off, but shortly afterwards, has a chesty cough and a runny, nose, does the child stay or they're asked to go home? Glenda.

Thanks Martin, and thanks for the question. I'm sure that that kind of thing would never happen in services. Look, I guess as far as a situation like this goes, I would suggest that services followed their usual practice. So obtain advice from health. If your usual policy is that in a situation like that, you'd contact the parent, have the child picked up from the service, obviously, from our perspective, nothing's changed in that space. Thank you.

Thank you. Thank you, Glenda. The next question is from Stephen. How can we support families to maintain learning from home with their children? Where should we go? I'd like to say before I throw this to Abi, that we have had a number of conversations with many of you who are continuing to support children and families at home. And it's really fantastic to see the things that people are doing. We know that this is a tricky time and we're interested in the activities that you're undertaking with children at home to see how they can be supported. Abi, is there anything you'd like to say?

Yes, I'll just pick up on that fact, actually. And we know how well educators are resourced and how they program for children. They know children's individual circumstances so well and, you know, their developmental stages. And so I would really encourage you to talk to your parents if they are having questions about, well, how do I support my child's learning at home? We're also working on producing some resources which will go onto our website and we'll have a dedicated webpage for resources that can be used with children in a home environment. And there are lots of reputable other sources of information such as the Starting Blocks website that ACECQA runs. That also has some information that could be - that you could help to pass on to families so that they can continue to support their children's learning and development when they're not in your service. Thanks Martin.

Thank you. Our next question is from Nick, who's an operations manager at a childcare centre. And that question is, will the department be pausing assessment and rating at this time as the Victorian Regulatory Authority have paused their A&R? Glenda.

Thanks Martin and thank you for the question. Look, we said this last time we live-streamed, and I guess, you know, things are evolving and changing every day. At this stage what we're doing is we're contacting all services who are scheduled for an upcoming and assessment rating. And interestingly, so far, we've had mixed results. So some services have asked that those assessment ratings be delayed and we're absolutely supporting that, or other services have actually wanted the assessment rating to go ahead, knowing that they've put lots of work into the preparation and they're ready to go and really wanting us to come in and see the work that they've done. So over the last week, we've actually undertaken 10 assessment rating visits across the state and we'll continue to work with services to be able to support those, where services are wanting to proceed. Otherwise, we'll be looking to reschedule when things get a bit more back to normal. Thank you.

Thanks. So our next question comes from Annette, a centre director. And that question is, our enrolment numbers continue to fall at a daily, sometimes, hourly rate. We need the government to step in now to close centres to save the future of our businesses and the employment of the people in our sector, or there'll be a very crippled and inefficient early childhood industry left when all this is over. Is this being considered in the decision making of the government in keeping centres open? Well, I might take this one and it's, you know, it's a simple answer, which is absolutely. So we understand the urgency. I think working in the state, we understand the daily implications of this. We've been working with many of your peaks to get hold of that data and so we can feed that into government, that this is not a tomorrow problem, but a today problem. I think all I can say at this point is, absolutely, we understand the urgency of the issue and we are feeding that through to government as I know your representatives are as well.

The next question is from Gemma. Where can we direct parents who are looking for resources to maintain learning for their children from home? That's a very good question. So as Abi indicated, we're actually setting up a page on our website, which will support parents and provide them with a starting point about where to go. We know there's a lot of stuff out there on the web and we've been working with your representatives and with universities to try and get some of the best stuff that's out there, so you've got somewhere to send parents, so they can actually start working on this.

Unlike schools, we don't have a large curriculum area in the department that works on early childhood, but what we do have is a very large, very imaginative, and very switched on sector. What we want to do with our website is actually harness your knowledge and your efforts, and if there's anything that you think we should be linking to, there's things that you've found, materials you think parents would find most useful, we'd be very appreciative if you could send them to us or send us a link to them. Because we'll be able to do some things, but with 5,500 of you out there, you're going to find much more creative ways of solving this problem. And I think together, we're going to be able to create something much more than if the department just tried to put up the few things that it could find. We're also interested in working with you on some of the outreach that you're doing, and we're very interested in the models that you're putting in place. And we'd love to go to work with you and build our website over time.

As I said, I think we've put this site together in about 10 days, so it's going to be what it is, but we would very much like to be able to expand it and you're going to be able to help us make it much better than we can do ourselves. So the next question, is early childhood education centres open? Abi.

Yes, so in echoing everything that my colleagues have already said, yes. It's very important that early childhood education and care centres do remain open. We know for our society it's very important. The work that you do is really essential and we want to support you as best we can in helping you to remain open at this time. As Glenda's already said, we do have a support team in place and you can call our information and inquiries team and they will help to divert you to our support team and you can ask questions of them to try and help identify what are the best solutions for you to try and remain open during this time.

If any of this information does change, we will come back to you again through our normal communication channels. And as I said, the information we're able to provide you with today is current as at the 27th of March. Thanks Martin.

Thanks. So next question is from Diane, an educator. So the question is, who has the right to shut our service down, how would we find out, and how long could we be shut down for? Abi.

Yes, so I'll answer this one as well. The primary responsibility for closing any education and care services would be through the advice of New South Wales Health. And so if you do have any concerns or you any suspected or confirmed cases at your service, please contact the public health unit and New South Wales Health will provide you with advice on what to do in those particular circumstances. We have heard from services where they have been advised from Health that they may only need to close for a couple of days to enable cleaning to occur and contact tracing to occur, through to other services that have needed to close for longer periods. As I said, please follow the individual advice from public health in your particular circumstances and they will talk you through what you need to do. If you do need to change your hours of operation, so if you do need to close, you must also notify the Regulatory Authorities. So let us know. Preferably through either the NQAITS or through our information and inquiries line. And that is required within 24 hours. So please contact us as soon as you can to let us know of any changes to your operating hours.

Thank you. The next question is about supplies and it comes from Alex. We've been to the supermarket nearly every day and either there are no supplies or we are restricted with how much we can buy. If we're to remain open, how can we get the supplies we need? We know this is an important question for you and it's one that we promised to go away and look at last time. Look, I'm pleased to be able to say if you have trouble with supplies and it's perhaps preventing you from staying open, we do ask you to contact us. So that's on 1800 619 113 or via email address. And this will be on our frequently asked questions on the website, because we are keen to be able to actually support you with emergency supplies, should this be threatening your viability. So get in touch with us and we should be able to help you. So thank you for that. The next question comes from Gary. Are you going to be doing any more live streams? Where should we keep sending our questions? So the questions should go to our email address if you have it, or you're welcome to call in as well, but if you'd like to put to our email address, that will make sure it gets into our system, that's, and that's on our website. We do take every single question that you put in and we either and answer it through this process or we put it into a frequently asked question. And sometimes you've got questions about things that have emerged, that we haven't yet been able to contemplate, so it's extremely helpful to know what's on your mind at the moment as well. So the next question is from Rhonda. A few of my staff are due to complete their first aid refresher training, but all the training providers are closed. What can I do? Abi.

Yes, I touched on this a little bit earlier. We have heard very similar concerns from you and we have been following up with the major training providers in the first aid space, and they have informed us that some of the practicum components are continuing to go ahead.

So I would encourage you to contact the providers directly to find out whether they're still holding those sessions. There is always the online component, but we would - and we would encourage you to complete that to maintain your knowledge as much as you can. And obviously, we understand that if you haven't been able to source the practicum component, then we will take, obviously, a very common-sense approach to any compliance or non-compliance in that sense. You know, we would be very aware of that and your efforts and attempting to maintain those qualifications. And as I said earlier, if you are able to, in your rosters, contemplate how you might have one staff member or a nominated supervisor who is available at your service, should an emergency arise, that would be another very good way of trying to maintain the provision of that across your service. We understand that it's not possible for everybody, particularly family day-care educators, but please take what steps you can to maintain the currency of your knowledge and skills.

Thank you Abi. I think we can just squeeze in our final question, very quickly. The question is from Diana. Some of my staff are unable to work and I'm having problems with maintaining ratios and qualification requirements. What can I do, Abi?

Yes, so in these circumstances, we really would, Diana, encourage you to contact us. Contact us through the number that Martin's already provided or through the email address and talk us through the circumstances that you're experiencing. We can certainly work with you to expedite any staffing and qualification waivers that are required. So ratios as well. And then we would also maintain a strong focus on ensuring children's health safety and well-being during this time. So we do want to know what steps you're taking in that space, but please do contact us and we will work those things through with you, expedite them as quickly as we can, and wave or refund any fees that would normally be applicable.

Thank you. Glenda, is there anything you'd like to add?

Yeah, I guess I'd just like to add to that when we're talking about children's safety, there was a question earlier around who can close a service, and I know we're focusing on the health aspect, which is correct, and it's department of health that makes those orders, but I guess I just wanted to reinforce that where children's health or safety is at risk, us as the Regulatory Authority, absolutely, have the discretion to suspend services. And so if we can't support you through waivers or other mechanisms to be able to keep children safe in your services, that's when we want you to talk to us. Thank you.

Thank you. Well, this is the end of our broadcast. If anything else changes about the operations of the sector, as I said, we'll advise you through our website, email and our SMS service. We'll be regularly updating the questions on our website, and we have this new group of frequently asked questions there now. We'll also be doing more webcasts when new information becomes available. But most importantly, we would like to acknowledge the work that everyone's doing to support children and families at this extremely difficult time, including all of you, and all of our staff who are out there with you on the frontline. Thank you for your questions and we appreciate you taking the time today to watch this webcast. Thank you.

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