Acorn Early Years Foundation began as a single nursery in 1989 in Milton Keynes. More than three decades later, the early years education group has grown to manage 13 nurseries – the latest only having opened earlier this month – across three counties, with more than 300 staff across its nurseries, out-of-school clubs, catering service and training centre.
The impact so far
While many businesses were told to allow staff to work from home where possible in early March, many schools and nurseries were deciding whether to remain open or send children home. Kieran Glackin, HR manager for the group, says it was a difficult time because the government’s guidance “left early years on the backburner”. “For those of us in the early years sector, our dilemma really wasn't whether to open or not, but how best to provide childcare that safeguards both children and staff,” says Glackin.
“Parents need to work – whether it's at a workplace or at home – and they need to know their child is cared for, safe and happy. Communication was critical, not just with our workers, but with parents because a lot of people were anxious and vulnerable.”
Glackin says half of Acorn’s nurseries stayed open for the whole of the lockdown period, caring for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. He says the close proximity of the nurseries worked in Acorn’s favour as they were able to “cluster” them and send the children and staff to another nursery that was close by.
Use of furlough
Acorn closed six of its nurseries to the public and kept six open for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. This was the case for 10 weeks up to 1 June, when all of the nurseries reopened.
“Because we were only open for key workers and vulnerable children, there were very few in,” Glackin explains.
As a result, Acorn decided to furlough 81 per cent of its staff, and the organisation allowed employees to decide whether or not they could work at the beginning of this process.
“We couldn’t have a member of staff who was incredibly anxious or felt uneasy doing parts of the job because they are a role model to the children,” says Glackin. “So we asked who would feel comfortable continuing to work and allowed them to take the lead on going forward with the furloughing scheme, which gave them a genuine sense of empowerment.”
Handling an outbreak
In June, an outbreak of Covid-19 began in one of Acorn’s nurseries, which was looking after 16 children in five ‘bubbles’. The outbreak, says Glackin, started with a member of staff who got tested on 9 June after experiencing symptoms.
Staff phoned all the parents within that bubble to inform them of the confirmed case, and to ask them to collect their child and isolate for 14 days in line with government guidance. The next day, a child in a different bubble went home after feeling ill and tested positive for coronavirus, prompting Acorn to call Public Health England (PHE) on 15 June. PHE asked the organisation to report any new cases if staff or children should present symptoms.
“Every staff member and child had to then be isolated for 14 days as standard procedure, which we had prepared for,” Glackin says. By 25 June, Glackin says there were a total of 23 cases spread between staff, children and family members of the children – the majority of which were asymptomatic.
The importance of communication
From the start of the lockdown and during the outbreak, Glackin says Acorn ensured all staff were getting continued, regular updates on the situation as well as changes to the wider business. This took the form of a "whimsical" email that went out to staff every Friday.
"It had business elements to keep staff up to date, but it was also light-hearted," Glackin says. "In feedback from surveys we've sent out to staff, people say they look forward to the Friday emails, and it's nice to hear because we're still keeping in touch even though I'm not able to talk to everyone individually."
As well as making sure staff were up to date, it was also critical to make sure the parents of the children at the nursery in question also knew what was happening, and that the organisation was working closely with PHE and the local authority on how to control the outbreak and safeguard staff and children.
“We wanted to reassure parents that we are not controlling the situation by ourselves because we are not the experts in this field,” Glackin says. “PHE took the lead.”
Looking back on the incident, Glackin says he feels Acorn made the right decision by staying open and keeping parents at the nursery involved and informed on how the situation was progressing. When the outbreak at the nursery was covered in the press, parents highlighted how Acorn had worked with them to control the outbreak.
In hindsight, Glackin says he wished they had communicated with all the parents across the organisation with the same level of transparency and openness.
“The biggest learning is to make sure communication is on point with everyone,” Glackin says. “Our failure was not communicating to the wider nursery group of parents. When they found out in the press, that was quite disheartening.”
While the lack of communication to the wider community was a downfall, Glackin says Acorn’s biggest advantage was that it understood the hypothetical process of containing an outbreak before it actually happened, given the management teams had undertaken hypothetical role plays of a variety of situations, including how they would respond to an outbreak within the company.
“The ‘what if?’ and ‘what next?’ questions were always being asked not just by senior leadership but right down through to our nursery staff,” Glackin explains. “We were constantly asking ourselves: ‘What do we do if an outbreak happens? Who’s going to be calling? What cleaning regimes do we have in place?’”
When they did have an outbreak, Acorn's incident management team handled an in-house track and trace programme for the incident, reporting back their findings to PHE and the local authority.
Glackin says going through an outbreak as well as the wider lockdown has been “stress testing the resilience of staff”, and it’s made him realise that staff need credit for what they have been able to do as well as be flexible in the years to come.
“We have a very good strategy in terms of where we want to be in the future and how we achieve our milestones in the future but, for now, we really want to be flexible if a second wave hits,” Glackin says.