They have been the anchor to hundreds of young families over the last eight weeks, providing care, stability and a large dose of fun for the children of keyworkers in childcare settings.
From the very start, childcare staff had to quickly adapt to not only different age groups but new children, building trust with both anxious parents and children who had never met them before and reassuring them that everything would be ok.
To cope with the demand, Flying Start settings which are run by Bridgend County Borough Council (BCBC) and Action for Children, some day nurseries and several childminders in the county borough transformed their provision to look after the young children of keyworkers.
In many cases, it has meant staff being redeployed, adapting to different shift patterns and working through the normal school holidays and bank holidays.
Meanwhile, the council’s Flying Start early years advisors, language and play officers, and portage workers are among the staff taking on dual roles, taking on shifts in childcare settings and managing their own workloads while home-working, keeping in contact with their usual families on the phone.
As part of the remodelling, both BCBC and Action for Children merged several of the nursery settings to provide three emergency childcare hubs – in Caerau, Sarn and Afon y Felin.
Jo Williams who is a team leader for Action for Children has been working at the Afon y Felin hub in North Cornelly. She said: “My role has changed dramatically over the last couple of months – usually you have first-hand knowledge of the children before they even enter, having liaised with the health visitors, and speech and language teams. With this situation we were thrown in at the deep-end.
“We were also used to looking after children aged two to three, the children here are now aged from three up to five so they’re at a different level with their needs and their learning.
“A huge part has involved trying to reassure parents who are coming in the door and dropping their three-year-old off to a stranger in a setting they’ve never been to before.
“Our role is to support and nurture these children, keeping things as normal as we possibly can – if we didn’t provide this service, our keyworkers wouldn’t be able to go to work.”
Beth Davies, the childcare manager at Action for Children, said: “When Covid-19 hit, we remodelled our services with staff doing different shifts to cover the mornings and afternoons.
“Some of the children are here 10 hours a day, they’re really long days – we have tried to instigate a routine that they would be used to – the children have breakfast, a hot lunch and tea, with play and downtime in between.
“We’ve been doing a range of creative skills with arts and crafts, jigsaws and role-play games as well as watching a bit of TV for down time and using equipment like the tunnels, slides and parachutes, with lots of time for outdoor play in the fresh air.
“Many of our staff have their own children who they are leaving in the school hubs while they cover shifts – and they’ve been bringing in puzzles, craft kits and DVDs that are more suited to these slightly older children, sanitising everything first.
“I’ve been blown away by their commitment.”
Rachel Pearce is an early years advisor who usually works with health visitors supporting parents at home with children from birth up to their fifth birthday, helping with issues like behavioural problems, toileting, sleep and routines.
Among the staff that has been redeployed going into the Flying Start childcare hubs to support the provision, she said: “There are four early years advisors who are now either working in Afon y Felin, Sarn and Caerau on the rotas, we work a couple of shifts a week and then come back to our own roles.
“Obviously we are not doing any home visiting, we are mainly just working on the phone – seeing how all the Flying Start families are coping, whether they have any concerns and how we can support them.
“It’s to give them a little bit of reassurance the service is still there for them, it’s just a bit different. We have made hundreds of calls – most families want to have a bit of a chat, some are single parents and haven’t had the opportunity to talk things over like they ordinarily would. It’s been more beneficial to them than I’d ever anticipated.
“For the emergency childcare provision, it’s obviously vital that our keyworkers continue to be able to work while knowing their children are safe and being looked after.
“It’s all very different which in itself is challenging but everyone is having to do things slightly differently at the moment.”
Robyn Scott is one of three language and play officers who is usually out in the community delivering sessions to parents and carers with children but is now helping to support the childcare provision for keyworkers, being based at one of the early years Flying Start emergency childcare hubs.
On the days they are not at one of the hubs, the team is keeping in contact with their families, calling them regularly, and creating language and play videos for their group with activities involving crafts and story reading.
Rowena Lee who is the childcare coordinator for Bridgend county borough’s seven Flying Start centres, said: “With every one of the children coming in, staff have had to build trust up with their parents and the children.
“Staff are working different hours with split shifts to cover the long days and they have their own fears. Maintaining staff health and wellbeing is crucial as is spending time with the parents who we chat with when they arrive.”
Generally, the three Flying Start emergency childcare hubs are looking after children between the ages of three and four years old with private childcare providers and childminders looking after those aged two years and under.
At weekends, some childminders are able to take care of children when there are too few to require the opening up of one of the hubs.
The private childcare providers helping to look after the young children of keyworkers include the Princess of Wales Day Nursery, the Banana Moon Day Nursery, Little Acorns Nursery and Bizzi Day Nursery.
Ange Minton runs the Banana Moon Day Nursery in Brackla. Recalling the decision to open her nursery to the children of keyworkers, she said: “It all happened so quickly, as a mum myself the biggest thing you ever do is take your child to nursery and know they’re being looked after and cared for. I was determined to try and support keyworkers.
“We had to think outside the box – we were used to providing hot meals twice a day but we could no longer get a food delivery slot and there were long queues at the supermarket.
“Other challenges involved making sure we had enough personal protective equipment and ensuring our staff felt comfortable and protected. We are an infection control-based setting anyway – you risk assess all the time.
“We were having parents and children come who had never met us before or been inside the setting. We had to ensure they got to know us quickly and instil that confidence in parents that their children are ok and it’s going to be ok.
“We have been really appreciative of the support provided by the Bridgend childcare team.
“Seeing the children with big smiles on their faces as their parents arrive to pick them up provides a ray of sunshine during these unprecedented times.”
The Leader, Cllr Huw David, said: “Eight weeks ago, Flying Start and the childcare provision we had known in the county borough closed on the Friday and then reopened on the Monday with a completely different offer to support the children of keyworkers.
“For many it has involved completely changing the way they usually work with staff being redeployed to ensure keyworkers are able to continue their vital work.
“There’s been a tremendous effort by all – and as a result, children are having an absolutely fantastic time in these settings.”