OOnce children between the ages of five and 11 have access to Covid vaccines, children under four will make up around 40% of Australia’s unvaccinated population. This will make Australia’s early learning sector the next front line in the pandemic.
A new Mitchell Institute report shows that daycare centers risk becoming major transmission sites without a comprehensive strategy to reduce the risk.
While high vaccination rates in the population will slow the spread of Covid, epidemics are still likely to occur, with the virus mainly finding the unvaccinated. As young children are not yet protected by vaccines, it is important to implement measures that reduce possible transmission in educational settings.
Many of the approaches used to mitigate the spread of Covid in schools – such as masks and social distancing – will be more difficult to implement in daycares. The child care funding model also means that measures that result in reduced physical attendance threaten the viability of providers.
Our report calls for a federal strategy and a set of measures to support the sector to reduce the risk of transmission among the million unvaccinated children attending daycare and preschool.
Children and the Covid
The rates of illness, hospitalization and death from Covid are much lower in children than in adults.
Evidence from the most recent outbreak in New South Wales suggests about 2% of children and young people under 18 who catch Covid end up in hospital. The most common symptoms in children with symptoms of covid include fever, stuffy or runny nose, cough, and fatigue.
But children can still be effective carriers of the Covid.
As vaccination rates increase among adults, the proportion of Covid cases involving children is also increasing.
This has been the experience in Europe. The figure below shows the proportion of Covid cases reported each week involving children under 15 in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as vaccination rates.
Before vaccines were made available in these countries, children under the age of 15 accounted for around 15-25% of reported Covid cases. They now represent about 35-40% of all reported cases.
As shown in the figure below, children aged four and under make up around 6% of Australia’s total population. Once children aged five to 11 have access to vaccines and immunization rates exceed 90%, children four and under represent about 40% of the unvaccinated population.
Many of these children will interact on a daily basis in day care centers.
There are also recent evidence which shows that children under five are 40% more likely to transmit Covid than older children.
Tougher mitigation measures in child care
The consensus among health experts is that the mitigation measures will help manage the spread of Covid in early childhood education and care and in schools.
But our report points out that these measures may be more difficult to implement in daycares and kindergartens than in schools.
For example, â€œcohortationâ€ reduces contact between groups of children. In schools, this means keeping class groups together and separated from other classes as much as possible.
However, in child care settings there is not always a cohesive or regular group of children and the composition of the children can change every day. This makes such a measurement difficult.
Improve ventilation has also been proposed reduce the spread in daycares, preschools and schools. Open or well ventilated spaces reduce the risk of transmission of Covid because infectious particles spread faster in the open air than in less ventilated spaces.
Some states have offered funds to schools and kindergartens to introduce better ventilation. But daycare centers do not yet have the same level of support.
Child care operators are largely run by nonprofit or private organizations and may not be able to afford expensive measures such as better ventilation.
The funding model for early childhood education and care providers is also very different from that of schools. While schools can still receive funding if students learn remotely, funding for child care is closely tied to physical attendance.
Any Covid mitigation measure that reduces the number of children in a center can quickly threaten the financial viability of providers.
Australia needs a plan
Some states and territories provide schools with strategic direction and funding. But the child care sector is largely the responsibility of the federal government, which lacks an urgent support strategy or program.
In the short term, Australia needs a plan specific to the operational reality of the early childhood education and care sector. The sector needs to be strengthened not only to prevent its collapse, but so that it can play an important role in minimizing the potential damage Covid causes to children and the general population.
And in the medium to long term, the pandemic underlines that Australia may need to rethink the way it finances and delivers early childhood education and care.
There are a huge body of literature describing the benefits of quality child care. Australia needs a system that ensures children and families can continue to benefit from a more resilient early childhood education and care service, even in times of crisis.