Nurseries currently lie empty as they await guidance on reopening Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: Nursery owners and operators in the UAE say they fear an impending collapse of their businesses unless they are bailed out in the aftermath of the COVID-9 outbreak.

A petition was sent to educational authorities on Monday, signed by 79 nursery operators - including some of the biggest early learning providers - stating that 50 to 75 per cent of nursery facilities could close in the coming month, even as they await reopening guidelines to reopen at full capacities.

“We as Nursery Owners across the UAE write to you to highlight the unbelievably critical situation in which the sector finds itself due to the closure since early March,” the petition reads.

“Whilst we understand the health and safety requirements and the prudent measures taken by the UAE authorities for the safeguarding of all our children and our citizens, and are fully supportive of the same, we have to state that now, without exaggeration, the Nursery Sector in the UAE is about to collapse.”

No income since March 

Nurseries were some of the first institutions to be closed in March as a means to limit the COVID-19 outbreak. The petition details how nurseries have not had any income since March, but are still being required to pay licensing fees, fines and charges. Continuing expenses have eventually forced some operators to lay off staff or place many on unpaid leave.

“Nurseries are mainly owned and operated by private and small entrepreneurs. This [continuing closure] will not only result in a significant number of redundancies and bankruptcies, but also a limited number of nursery options for parents as the UAE,” the petition reads.

Speaking to Gulf News, Roshi Tandon, founder and managing director at Chubby Cheeks nurseries, said nurseries were finding themselves in a “state of emergency”.

“At the time of closure, we had 13 branches across four emirates, which employed more than 500 staff members and enrolled 1,500 children. Right now, rentals are our biggest expense, being located in prime areas, and without any financial support. I know other operators facing different challenges, including licensing and staffing. Without a reopening date, the way forward is very unclear, and we have already had a number of very talented colleagues and staff resign,” Tandon said.

Umari Tariq, chief executive officer for the Middle East at Kido Nurseries, added that many of its 60 personnel had to be placed indefinitely on unpaid leave, while others had been let go.

Umari Tariq, chief executive officer for the Middle East at Kido Nurseries

“We have had no income for six months now, but expenses are still amounting to Dh400,000 per month across our three branches in Dubai,” Tariq said.

Given that schools received the go-ahead to resume in-class learning in the upcoming term, which starts on August 30, many nursery operators were hoping for some kind of guidance or support to be announced this month.

“We typically begin receiving student fees in August for a September start. That has not happened this year, even as we continue to pay rent and salaries. This month is when the situation becomes unsustainable,” said Shaun Robison, governor of Dubai Sports City-located nursery, Idea ELC. Prior to closure, the facilities boasted 50 staff and 200 enrolled children.

Online learning model less effective for nurseries

Jess Davies, academic coordinator at The Wonder Years nurseries, said many teachers and teaching assistants are on unpaid leave due to the nature of the job, because children are often not old enough for online learning.

“We created a parent survey and 73 per cent of our parents responded they would send their child back to nursery should we reopen in September, and only 14 per cent of parents would be interested in online learning if the nursery remained closed.

“These responses from our parents make it clear that if we remain closed, we will not be able to sustain our nursery and many of our staff will continue to struggle financially, unable to pay their rent and their bare necessities.

“However, if we are to reopen, we have a greater chance at recovering and contributing not only to the UAE economy but by giving parents a peace of mind when they finally get back into work,” she said.

Parents struggling to cope

Working parents with young children who have been unable to attend nursery say they have been struggling. “It’s been very difficult,” says Renna Webb, a British nursery manager and mother to 3-year-old Theo, who usually attends nursery at her workplace. “I don’t have a nanny but have been working full time – on only 30% pay, so I can’t afford house help at the moment either.

"I’ve had Zoom meetings with my son literally climbing me like a human climbing frame, crying, desperately craving my attention. I have had terrible mum guilt, but what else can I do?”

Renna Webb, mum of three-year-old boy

Nicole Lovelock Mears, a client engagement manager from the UK and mum to one year-old Sienna, says she has also been juggling working from home with being the primary carer for her little girl and she is desperate for her child’s nursery to reopen. “I’ve just done the best I can between calls and emails,” she says.

“It was easier when she was smaller because I could put her down and she would stay in one place. But she’s learnt to walk while this situation has been going on, so it has been getting progressively trickier. We have had some awful days, but I just hope the end is in sight.”

The value of nurseries

Even parents of nursery-age children who have other childcare options are keen for nurseries to reopen because of the valuable service they offer. “I have a nanny but after one year at home I preferred for my daughter to go to nursery for half a day, just to learn a few things and play with other kids,” says Hind Chah, a Moroccan insurance professional and mother of a 2-year-old.

Hind says that she sent her daughter to a nursery in order to learn her native language French, which was going well in-person, but the e-learning format didn’t work well for a child of her daughter’s age. She adds that her daughter is close to the age when she should be attending nursery to help her prepare for Dubai school assessments.

Nicole Lovelock Mears, mum of a one-year-old girl

Nicole Lovelock Mears explains that she chose nursery over hiring a nanny because of the social element: “Because we are expats and don’t have family out here, I thought nursery would be the best way for her to learn to interact, and knew that she would be supervised by staff qualified in working with children her age.”

The nursery owners behind the petition say they hope to be able to offer these services again soon, with stringent health and safety measures in place, if they are allowed to reopen, “so we can continue to play our crucial role as a strong contributor to our great nation by providing support to working parents and outstanding care and education for our youngest children.”