By Gavin Gibbon
Nursery operators say 10% of the industry has already been forced to close permanently during Covid-19 pandemic
As many as 14,000 jobs could be lost in the nursery sector across the UAE in the next few weeks as operators continue to await news from authorities on whether they can reopen their doors in September.
Nurseries in the country were closed at the start of March as part of early preventative measures introduced by the government to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Schools followed later in the month, but while education authorities have given them the go ahead to reopen at the start of the new academic year in September, operating at full capacity, nursery owners have yet to discover their fate.
There are roughly 300 nurseries operating in Dubai alone, employing around 15,000 people in total.
Shaun Robison, governor of IDEA Nursery, revealed that an estimated ten percent have already been forced to close their doors, with the loss of “at least” 2,500 staff members.
He said the continuing uncertainty is “crippling” the industry.
“If things do not change within the next two-to-three weeks, you’re looking at a number closer to 5-7,000 because everyone has been holding on for dear life in the assumption that we’re going to reopen in September,” he said.
“But people are not going to be able to keep those ongoing costs. It’s going to be a mass unemployment of the early years’ sector if we don’t get an announcement soon,” he added.
A similar number was predicted for Abu Dhabi.
As well as the reopening of schools after the summer, the UAE has also been gradually opening up following an intense period of lockdown. Hotels and restaurants are back up and running, shisha bars reopened this week, and Dubai has been welcoming international tourists back to the emirate since July 7.
Umair Tariq, CEO, Middle East & Africa at Kïdo Education, which operates three Safari Kid Nurseries in Dubai, revealed the company had expansion plans for the region pre-Covid-19, but said many operators will now just be looking to simply survive.
He said: “If we do not receive guidance for reopening in the next couple of weeks, and if we do not receive guidance to reopen at full capacity, I think our estimations are that at least 50 percent of nurseries could close down across the UAE.”
It is also feared that the uncertainty in the market is being capitalised on by schools, who are offering incentives for parents to enrol youngsters with them instead, including free places for siblings and free transportation.
Diana Keidan, area director for Odyssey Nursery, part of Kids First Group, one of the largest providers in the UAE, revealed that 400 staff members have been working on reduced salaries and ten percent of the workforce has been made redundant, and expected more bad news, should they not be allowed to reopen in September.
She said: “We supported our team and all the staff were still getting their salaries, partially since March until now. We don’t know how much we can sustain in supporting our staff.
“We will be hit if the schools reopen before the nurseries as parents will have to choose or prefer to go to schools rather than register in a nursery.”
Robinson said the closure since March will have cost in the region of AED300 million once September rolls around. “To allow the sector to continue as it is without any guidance is essentially crippling it for the long-term,” he said.
Lama Chivi, chief executive officer Middle East & India at Babilou, said that nurseries the company owns in France have been open since May 11 and are currently operating at 74 percent occupancy; in Germany all nurseries have reopened and 80 percent are operating in the US; nurseries in Singapore have been operating since June 2. While premises in the UK are working at around 80 percent capacity after a two-month period of lockdown.
She stressed that they are ready to open as soon as they are told with strict health and safety measures adopted, including new protocols for cleaning and deep cleaning, using air purifiers, dividing classrooms into smaller areas, having kids in smaller groups, regular temperature checks and wearing masks.
She added that, despite reported concerns from parents, the demand is there, although a determining factor will be when they open and under what circumstances or restrictions.
She said: “It will depend on the allowed capacity that they will allow us to open at because you have to assume our operations are going to be at least 20 percent more expensive. We’re going to have more teacher to child ratios so more staffing, plus additional costs of hygiene and cleaning in terms of equipment or people.
“To run the same nursery we will be incurring an additional 20 percent in operational and HR costs.
“If we’re not going to be allowed to operate at full capacity, if they tell us we can only welcome 20 percent or 50 percent of the children, we are running at a loss. We cannot run a nursery at 50 percent occupation, this is a loss-making nursery.”
Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) and Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK) have both been contacted for comment.