The executive director of the Laurentian Child and Family Centre said it’s time for the province to start treating daycares like the essential service it has been deemed in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Theresa Mills said she was left with more questions than answers when the province announced Monday it is returning to a modified version of Step 2 to its Roadmap to Reopen. She said they were told, just like everyone else, that daycares are to remain open and even provide emergency child care services for school-aged children.
Laurentian Child and Family Centre has 18 employees that provide services for 64 children, including a dozen school-aged children. Neither the children, nor the staff, qualify for PCR testing. As of Dec. 31, lab testing for COVID-19 is only available for specific groups who are considered high-risk individuals and those who work in high-risk settings.
Prior to Premier Doug Ford’s announcement on Jan. 3, most child-care centres required a negative PCR test for a child to return after symptoms. Now, if a child exhibits any symptoms, such as a runny nose or cough, that child will be sent home for at least five days to isolate. That child’s parents and siblings are also required to self-isolate.
“They're closing schools for two weeks so they can get N-95 masks and HEPA filters, but they want me to open my daycare tomorrow,” said Mills. “I've got nothing. None of that stuff. We've never gotten it, and now we're not allowed to be tested.
“We're considered essential because you can't work without us. But they're not doing anything for us. It’s a nightmare.”
The Ministry of Education has informed daycares that funding will be made available to provide emergency child care, but how much is unknown.
Mills said she has to put together a plan in order to qualify for the funding, and even then, it’s not guaranteed.
She said funding will be made available for the week of Jan. 10-14, but if she was able to get a plan together and submitted by Jan. 5, the ministry would consider funds for the remainder of this week.
“So you can start the program now, and hope that your plan is approved, but they are not guaranteeing that,” she said. “If the plan isn’t approved, then the cost is transferred to the parents.”
Mills said she and her staff already made the decision not to run an emergency child care program this week.
“So, already our parents have no care from Wednesday to Friday this week for their school children,” she said.
Because of its close proximity to Health Sciences North and other health-care facilities, Laurentian Child and Family Centre caters to many health-care professionals, many of whom will qualify for emergency child care, but there are only 12 spots for school-aged children, Mills said.
“We have six pages of people who qualify for emergency child care,” she said. “My phone has been ringing off the hook.”
At some daycares, parents will still be responsible for paying for days their child misses because they are isolating. Every daycare has its own policy in place, said Mills.
That’s not the case at Laurentian Child and Family Centre, though.
“How can we charge parents who are at home with their children when they don’t have an income because they are not getting paid,” Mills said.
However, if the measures are extended, then that policy will have to be revisited, she said.
“The bottom line is, we are still a business, and we have to pay our staff,” she said.
Staff that have to isolate as a result of exposure will also be paid, but Mills said she can’t continue paying staff for however long these measures might be in place.
Before Christmas, Laurentian Child and Family Centre had only one confirmed case of COVID-19 throughout the entire pandemic, she said.
There are now seven cases there affecting three families.
“I think it's gonna blow up, and this is the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “We all know that. So my staff is coming to work every day not knowing if they've been exposed to COVID, and we can't get tested. The stress of that alone is enough.”
Meanwhile, opposition politicians want the Ontario government to make COVID-19 testing available to children attending daycare and resume the reporting of cases in child care centres.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said in a Canadian Press story the policy halting the reporting of daycare cases -– which came as Ontario limited COVID-19 testing to certain high-risk groups — amounts to a "coverup" by Premier Doug Ford's government that's causing parents more anxiety.
He says the government needs to give daycares access to COVID-19 testing immediately, and reverse the policy decision on case reporting.
The New Democrats have also called for the policy to change, calling it dangerous to stop reporting cases when children attending daycare are too young to be vaccinated.
-With files from the Canadian Press