Early childhood advocates are calling for the childcare subsidy system to be overhauled as the threat of further COVID-19 shutdowns loom.
During Canberra's lockdown providers were faced with the dilemma of waiving fees for families keeping children at home and reducing work hours for staff or continuing to charge fees as usual to meet their payroll expenses.
Northside Community Service, which operates four centres in Canberra, decided it did not want to stand down staff during the lockdown and continued to charge the gap fee, a move that was unpopular with some families.
Executive director of operations Liam McNicholas said providers were facing tough financial times.
"Every early education service took a really big hit over those nine weeks, which was really disappointing," Mr McNicholas said.
"It's two years in a row of lockdowns and lower revenue. That means it does eventually have an impact on how we operate."
In September, a viability support package allowed centres to receive a fortnightly payment 25 per cent of the childcare subsidy if they waived gap fees, but it still left providers out of pocket.
While the rates of serious illness and death for COVID-19 are lower for children, they can still catch and transmit the virus.
A new report from health and education policy think tank the Mitchell Institute warned early childhood services needed more support to reduce the risk of transmission as emerging evidence showed younger children were about 40 per cent more likely to transmit COVID-19 than older children.
It also warned the current childcare subsidy system meant closures or measures which reduced attendance threatened the financial viability of providers.
Early Childhood Australia chief executive Samantha Page said charging fees when children were absent would continue to be an issue as the public health emergency came to an end but COVID-19 continued to circulate.
"I think we need to change the childcare subsidy system to cope with this new situation we're going to be in and to keep government funding flowing into services so that educators and teachers don't lose hours or lose their jobs but families can keep children at home and not have to keep paying fees," Ms Page said.
"I think it's actually quite complicated under the current legislation."
Ms Page said there should be a public funding model like in the school system.
"Early childhood services should just be seen as a continuation of school education and the staff that are employed in them should have security of employment."
From Monday, early childhood education services were able to accept all children, regardless of whether their parents were essential workers or in vulnerable circumstances.
Ngunnawal Child Care and Education Centre manager Natasha Weissmann said the number of children attending dropped from 108 to the low-20s in the early days of Canberra's lockdown.
On Tuesday, the centre had about 70 children back on site, with more expected next week as the remaining school-aged children went back to class.
Mrs Weissmann said there were a few tears but mostly joy when the children signed in with their COVID-safe procedure.
"We had one child this morning ... when we opened the centre doors, he didn't even turn back to grab his bag off dad," she said.
"He just ran straight down to his room and was yelling out to his friends. And it was just beautiful and he hadn't been here for 10 weeks."
Mrs Weissmann said the high vaccination rates and a strong level of trust between families and educators gave parents the confidence to bring children back.
"Because we've been open through the fires, through both lockdowns, I think it's allowed for families to have that confidence that we are here," she said.
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