Schools Shut, Business As Usual For Nurseries… & Staff Are Scared

Photographed by Emli Bendixen.
Nursery workers across the country are speaking out against the government's decision to keep nurseries open during England's third lockdown, despite shutting all schools.
The decision to keep nurseries open came last week after it was announced that nursery schools present a "very low risk" to the spread of coronavirus. Nursery staff and children are not expected to wear face masks. However, in situations where social distancing between adults is not possible, nurseries have the choice to ask adults to wear face masks.
The announcement has both angered and concerned nursery workers, leading to a petition calling for all nurseries and early years settings to close during lockdown, which has garnered over 87,000 signatures at the time of writing.
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Beth*, who works at a nursery in Bournemouth, looks after children aged between 3 months and 5 years. While only one child so far has tested positive for COVID-19, Beth tells Refinery29 that she feels terrified going into work each day because it's "impossible" to social distance.
"On our busiest day we have around 32 children. We cannot distance from the children and we are regularly coughed on," she says. "I have an autoimmune disease but I am not bad enough to be shielding. My only option is to go on sick leave but then I can't pay rent."
The 22-year-old wears a face mask by choice but adds she's the only member of staff who does so as it's not a mandatory requirement. "The only time we have to wear PPE (personal protective equipment) is when we hand over to parents, who are meant to wear face masks but often they don't. We also have PPE if a child develops symptoms but if they have symptoms, we still have to sit with them until they get picked up."

I have a job but I am not willing to die for it.

Beth*, 22
Beth says she has voiced her concerns by calling her MP, signed petitions and emailed No. 10 in the hope that they would close nurseries and keep skeleton staff working for key worker children. "I have never been more stressed in my life. I love my job but I am not willing to die for it. And now I have to put my life on the line to raise children when I would rather be at home."
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She continues: "We are underpaid, under-appreciated and now not even considered education even though we follow a national curriculum."
Reshay Melville, 24, who works as an assistant at a nursery in London, says that since returning to work in August 2020, she has had two anxiety attacks. "One, because of the amount of people still on public transport — you can't social distance on a packed Tube — and the second one once I got back to work, simply because I wasn't ready to go back."

I lost my grandad to the virus, and my dad is in hospital with it. I cried. I thought 'I've killed him all because I had to make money'.

Reshay Melville, 24
Reshay says she's still very afraid of the virus. "I lost my grandad to it, my dad has underlying health issues and is in hospital this week because of it. He hadn't left the house since March but we had cases [at the nursery] just as we broke up for Christmas and most likely he got it from me.
When asked how this made her feel, she says: "I cried. I thought, I've killed him all because I had to make money."
Jennifer*, 28, who is a deputy manager of a children's nursery in southwest England, believes nurseries should be open for essential workers and vulnerable children but not to all. She tells Refinery29 that her nursery has been busier than expected for this lockdown and while they have most staff in as normal, there is no social distancing in early years. "Even though the virus may not spread or be as harmful to children, there are still a full team of practitioners mixing daily and getting germs from the children.
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Even though the virus may not spread or be as harmful to children, there are still a full team of practitioners mixing daily and getting germs from the children.

JeNNIFER*, 28
She adds: "I do not understand how schools can be open to only key workers and vulnerable children but nurseries don't get the same support. Some councils have chosen to not give their nursery settings the funding they need if the children don't attend during the lockdown. This is very wrong and we will likely see settings either going out of business or begging for families to send their children in so the setting can pay staff, rent and stay open in the future."
The Early Years Alliance, the largest such membership organisation in England, has written to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson.
In the letter, Alliance chief executive, Neil Leitch, said: "Early years providers have been on the frontline through the crisis. They have put themselves, and their loved ones, at risk to do what the government has asked and provide vital care and education to the children and families that need it.
"It cannot be that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders are treated as education providers when they are needed by the government, and dismissed as private businesses who have to fend for themselves when they are not."
A Department for Education spokesperson told Refinery29: "Keeping nurseries and childminders open will support parents and deliver the crucial care and education for our youngest children. Our youngest children have the lowest level of contact with others outside their households and so long as settings follow systems of controls the risk of transmission is low.
"We are funding nurseries as usual and all children are able to attend their early years setting in all parts of England."
*Names have been changed to protect identities

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