Childcare and coronavirus: Australian families won’t be penalised for keeping children home

Families who keep their children home from daycare won’t be penalized and businesses that close because of the coronavirus will still get access to federal subsidies, Australia’s education minister, Dan Tehan, has said.

Public school students began staying home in droves on Tuesday after state premiers announced a patchwork of responses: the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, encouraged parents to keep children home, while Victoria brought forward its school holidays to Tuesday.

But childcare centers have been encouraged to remain open, with Tehan saying he would introduce changes to help families with the cost of childcare and help centers remain open during the Covid-19 outbreak.

In Australia, children are allowed up to 42 days, or six weeks, of absences in a financial year without needing to provide a medical document, before a parent’s access to the childcare subsidy is restricted.

Guardian Australia previously reported parents would only be able to access childcare subsidies if they decide to keep their children home as a result of the coronavirus if they had a medical certificate.

The virus also had the potential to severely impact the childcare sector, experts said, because under the terms of the childcare subsidy centers cannot charge fees unless they are open.

But this week Tehan said the government would increase the number of days that a child can be absent before the subsidy is cut off, and remove the need for evidence in relation to Covid-19.

“We are making changes to ensure Australian families will continue to receive financial support through the childcare subsidy if their children can’t attend childcare because of Covid-19,” he said.

Tehan also said the government would continue to pay the subsidy, which can be up to 85% of the daily cost of a child’s care if they are directed to temporarily close because of the virus.

“By paying the childcare subsidy to services that are forced to close temporarily, we are providing financial support to businesses to pay their staff and remain viable so they can reopen when it is safe to do so,” he said.

But Tehan said the assistance would only apply where the closure of a childcare service was based on public health advice, not where the center closed voluntarily.

Childcare centers have recorded a steep drop in attendance rates, as parents respond to fears about the virus. Some center operators said they would continue to lose money unless they were compensated.

“I’ve had to send four educators home [on Monday], due to very low numbers,” one long daycare center operator said.

“It’s not financially viable to be open at the moment. I think it would be more sensible if the government reassured everyone that they do care about our health, safety, and employment by closing childcare for a couple of weeks or so whilst ensuring our pay.

“I think everyone – families and educators – would have a lot more faith in the system.”

Labor’s shadow minister for early childhood education, Amanda Rishworth, said there was significant confusion in the sector about whether centers would be able to access government’s additional payments unless they were directed to close.

“Whilst the continued payment of the childcare subsidy to services directed to close is an important measure, there is confusion about whether centers who voluntarily close will continue to receive the payments,” she said.

“There are also questions around how services will be able to stay open if families choose to cease enrolment of their children over the coming weeks and months.”

On Monday the NSW education minister, Sarah Mitchell, wrote on Twitter that she would discuss the challenges facing childcare centers with Tehan.

“We recognize this is also a difficult time for early childhood services in NSW,” she said. “We will be encouraging these services to remain open, but there will be challenges which we will work with them to address.

“This will include talking to our federal colleagues about further support.”

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