When the streets went quiet and life as we knew it stopped, it was a relief for Emily Flint to be able to continue to take her daughter to a long daycare centre in Narrabundah.
Eighteen-month-old Poppy didn't know there was a global pandemic going on, but there were no more visits to family and friends and no outings to the park. Amid the changes, she could still go to daycare three days a week as usual.
Mrs Flint couldn't be more grateful to the educators who kept coming to work, allowing her and her husband to continue to earn a living.
"I can't even think of the word of how crucial it's been for us. Without the daycare and without the educators I wouldn't have been able to go to work and we wouldn't have been able to pay our bills," she said.
"It's been so important and I'm so thankful that the service was still available because I just don't know what I would have done without it."
Calls are growing for a complete rethink of how early learning is funded to increase access for children, improve affordability for parents and raise wages for educators.
After the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, parents started taking their children out of care for health and financial reasons. The Australian government stepped in with an emergency package to keep childcare centres open.
On April 2, Education Minister Dan Tehan said the childcare system would be "turned off" and instead government would give providers 50 per cent of their usual fee revenue on the condition they did not charge parents fees and did not change staffing levels.
With young children, if they miss out on a couple of months of access to early learning, they go back, they regress, they can forget what they learned. And that is a real concern when they are preparing to start school, because if they start behind they often stay behind.Goodstart head of advocacy John Cherry
The gap in revenue was partially covered by the JobKeeper scheme, which kept centres afloat with varying degrees of success.
Now the sector is bracing for another change. Come July 13, a new transition scheme will apply where providers will get 25 per cent of their usual fee revenue. JobKeeper payments will be switched off for early childhood educators from July 20. Parents will receive the Child Care Subsidy based on their income, but won't have to pass the activity test until October 4.
A survey of 60,000 families conducted by Goodstart Early Learning found more than half of respondents had suffered a reduction in their income since March. About 37 per cent of families reported that they would have to reduce their hours of childcare when fees return on July 13.
Goodstart's head of advocacy, John Cherry, says the company is deeply worried about how this disruption in early childhood education could affect children's learning.
"With young children, if they miss out on a couple of months of access to early learning, they go back, they regress, they can forget what they learned. And that is a real concern when they are preparing to start school, because if they start behind they often stay behind," Cherry says.
"The government deserves a tick for agreeing to a transition period and easing the activity test. But the transition period will need to be longer and they do need to address affordability in a robust way because the economy won't be back to where it was anytime soon."
The free childcare period has been particularly important for parents who own and operate small businesses, according to Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Kate Carnell.
She fears the transition back to the subsidy system is coming too quickly as family businesses are still coping with the economic fallout of COVID-19.
"Thirty-eight per cent of Australian small businesses are owned by women. A very large percentage of people who have lost their job are women, a significantly higher percentage of women than men," she says.
"We know the participation rate of women in the workforce has dropped quite significantly. Women have borne the brunt of COVID-19 and small businesses have too."
Families were struggling with childcare fees even before the economic shock caused by the coronavirus. For many households, having both partners in full-time work doesn't add up when factoring in the cost of childcare. Analysis from the Grattan Institute shows a family earning less than $68,000 per year receiving the maximum subsidy of 85 per cent of the base childcare rate would still spend $9000 per year with two children in childcare.
The average Australian couple with two children is paying about a quarter of their household income in childcare fees, whereas the OECD average is 11 per cent.
Grattan Institute researcher Kate Griffiths says the result is the second income earner, who is usually the mother, cannot justify returning to work full-time.
"If you work full-time and earn $60,000, your income for working a fourth day with two kids in childcare would only be $2 an hour, and working a fifth day would be effectively nothing. So your incentives to work full-time opposed to part-time are just not there under the current system."
The Child Care Subsidy cost the federal government $8 billion last financial year.
Georgie Dent of advocacy group The Parenthood says more value needs to be placed on the sector. She suggests early learning should be treated like public schools, with services funded directly.
"We have been overdue an overhaul in this space. For the last 15 years or so we have been tinkering with this model," she says.
"We're spending exponentially more in subsidies each year, but parents have not seen any meaningful reduction in fees and educators have not seen any increase in wages."
The Grattan Institute crunched the numbers on different models. Universal free childcare would see costs balloon out to triple what the current subsidy scheme costs. Instead, the institute arrived at a higher subsidy of 95 per cent of fees for lower income households as the best option, tapering off as family incomes increase.
In a post-pandemic environment, there's a strong case for boosting support to keep educators in jobs, allow parents to work and keep the economy turning.
While the Flint family were able to maintain their income, for others relief from childcare fees was critical when it came to helping them survive.
"I can imagine there are other families who it made a huge difference for and just got them through a really tricky time not having that worry and knowing the child was going to be looked after," Flint says.