Organizations say government 'asking the impossible' of child-care centres with reopening announcement

Organizations say government ‘asking the impossible’ of child-care centres with reopening announcement

Child-care sector advocates say they were "blindsided" and "disappointed" by the provincial government's announcement on Tuesday that all child-care centres across the province would be allowed to reopen on Friday. They said three days of notice is "not good enough" and are calling on the province for additional funding for the sector so that centres can reopen safely.

Meanwhile, one infectious disease specialist's message to parents is to keep their children away from the elderly as they return to child-care settings.

"We requested three weeks notice for programs to be able to get ready to reopen," said Alana Powell,  executive coordinator with the Association of Early Childhood Educators Ontario (AECEO), referring to the list of recommendations for reopening child-care centres that the group put together with the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care (OCBCC). "It takes a lot of work to put in new procedures, new policies, reorganize spaces, bring staff back, train staff, make sure they feel safe and confident in their work, so three days is not good enough."

Carolyn Ferns, OCBCC's policy co-ordinator, said many centres are going to need more time.

"I don’t see what the point of raising parents’ hopes (that) child care could open on Friday when everybody in the room knows that’s not possible," Ferns said. The government announced all child care centres could open on Friday with restrictions, and provided their reopening plans are approved by local public health officials. This is even though some areas, including Toronto, won't be entering stage two on June 12.

Ferns pointed to a part of the government's press release that said "the existing child care funding formula will be leveraged to support enhanced cleaning costs and the health and safety requirements set out to support the reopening of child care centres, as well as the continued stabilization of the sector."

"We know that from previous announcements that’s code for 'there’s no new money, we’re just going to move the money around in the child-care system as it is now,'" said Ferns. "There appeared to be no funding plan for any of it, which is a real problem because we know that additional health and safety requirements that we all know are needed, that costs money and unless parent fees are going to go up, which we know can’t happen, centres are not going to be able to reopen," Ferns said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Tuesday that parents who decide not to send their children back to a child-care centre during this time will not lose their spot or be charged. The government's guidance document for the reopening of the sector also states that "child care operators should set fees at the level they were at prior to the closure."

Among the requirements for child-care centres when they reopen is to cohort children and staff into groups of 10 or less.

Ferns said while cohorting and the idea that staff should only be working with one group of children are good recommendations, there are costs attached.

"If we’re going to reduce the group sizes or have enhanced staff to be able to do cleaning and screening, that’s going to cost more in staffing," she said.

For an estimate on costs, Powell pointed to emergency child care that was has been provided to frontline workers since March.

"The cost to those programs is about two to three times the cost of regular operations, so without new money and smaller groups, we’re not sure how programs are going to be able to do this, it’s really asking the impossible of operators and early childhood educators," she said.

Asked about additional funding for child-care centres on Tuesday, Lecce pointed to the previously announced plan in May on support for the sector. It included funding for fixed operating costs along with supports through the federal government's wage subsidy program and the joint federal-provincial rent assistance.

A government spokesperson said the education ministry "recognizes that there will be increased costs to maintain higher health and safety standards. Existing child care funding will be optimized to support enhanced cleaning costs and increased health and safety requirements in child care settings where necessary."

The government also said it will be releasing funding guidance with planning details in the coming days.

Liberal MPP and former premier Kathleen Wynne called the government's announcement an "unrealistic, ill-considered instruction that is bound to fail."

"They have been told to increase safety and screening protocols, increase staffing, in some cases find additional space without additional funding and within three days," said Wynne in a statement. "The government is counting on many parents simply not returning their children to child care. But if that is the case, how can businesses actually open without those workers and how can child cares continue to operate without full enrolment especially if the government refuses to provide adequate funding for these extraordinary circumstances."

Toronto-based father of two Rowan Caister posted a message on Twitter from his children's provider — the Learning Enrichment Foundation — that said the centre would open "slowly and carefully."

The provider said they're looking at having groups with a maximum of eight people and that most of the day would be spent outside. "This type of set up means costs will increase 3-4 times," the notice said, adding that fewer families would be able to access child care at each of LEF's centres.

Caister said both his and his wife's employers have been understanding of their circumstances — having two young children at home during the pandemic — and have given them work flexibility.

But he said the government's announcement coming "before everything being ready is another layer of difficulty" for families if it suggests to employers that "we can return to business as usual" when centres might not be ready or some parents might not be ready to send their children back.

Caister said his centre has indicated it could take more than a month before it's ready to reopen, but added that before he thinks about sending his children back he'd like more details on the government's plan for testing the children and staff in child-care centres. This includes knowing exactly how and when families would be informed of updates like positive cases and how the government would handle it if several centres start reporting cases. He'd also like to hear the "lessons learned" from the past few months when emergency child-care centres were operating and an outbreak was reported at a centre in Toronto.

Meanwhile, Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, agreed with the child-care sector organizations that it would have been beneficial for the government to provide centres with a bit more of a heads-up about reopening.

"A lot of them don’t have the PPE, and the equipment and probably they’re not prepared," said Banerji, adding that she thinks it will be "very difficult to contain kids in the child-care setting and not have them get infected."

"I think that once you open the floodgates they probably will get infected," she said.

Banerji said that as children return to child-care settings, it will be important to have them maintain distance from vulnerable people.

She said a lot of people can't work if they don't have child care, so it makes sense to start reopening centres, but that the key will be to "cocoon or protect those people who are at high risk of having severe disease."

"I think any child that goes back into daycare in the next little while, you should assume that they’re going to be exposed, and they may not get sick right away or they may not have any symptoms but...then what might happen is that the family might start getting symptoms," she said, adding that families would need to wait for this to "run its course."

"Until we know what’s going on, they probably should avoid meeting with the elderly people," she said. "The emphasis should be on keeping the elderly grandparent away from the kids in the next several weeks as these kids get infected."

Her comments come after Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said earlier this week that he might have news to share soon on the idea of social or family bubbles.

Since mid-January, there have been 1,280 reported cases of COVID-19 in children in Ontario, accounting for 4.1 per cent of the cases. That's up from a Public Health Ontario report that explored data between January 15 and May 12, in which children (those 19 and under) made up 2.7 per cent of the cases.

Public Health Ontario noted, however, that the number of cases in children is likely under-detected and under-reported because children are more likely to have "milder or asymptomatic infection and not present for care/testing."

Close contacts were most frequently reported as the source of exposure for children (45.5 per cent of cases at the time), while the exposure type reported most frequently for adults was a connection to a particular outbreak (43.5 per cent of the cases at the time).

Sneh Duggal

Reporter, Queen's Park Briefing

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