16 daycares linked to COVID-19 cases in Halifax area
'They're scared. This is not the COVID of last year. This is COVID 2021,' says daycare director
Sixteen daycares have been linked to COVID-19 cases in the Halifax area, according to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
"COVID is in the community, and I know that people are nervous and concerned, but I want to reassure people that we are there to support our sector through this," Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Derek Mombourquette said Thursday.
He was not able to say exactly how many cases there were among staff or children at the 16 affected daycares.
Mombourquette said some centres close for three days for cleaning, but others may shut down for a shorter or a longer period of time depending on the exposure risk assessed by Public Health and the need for contact tracing.
The minister said there has been one extended closure of a daycare in the Bedford area, but he did not have an updated number on how many centres were closed as of Thursday.
Daycare workers concerned
Daycare workers have been speaking out over the past week about their concerns. Private daycare operators have been asked to stay open to care for the children of parents who cannot work from home.
Early childhood educators have said they're afraid COVID-19 may spread in daycares because they can't socially distance from children while caring for them.
"The staff and myself, we're all feeling terrified. I don't know of another word I can use. They're scared. This is not the COVID of last year. This is COVID 2021," said Bobbi Keating, the executive director at Peter Green Hall Childrens Centre, a licensed daycare near St. Mary's University in Halifax.
"This is totally different, so they're really scared."
Keating's centre is licensed for 120 children between the ages of four months and 12 years, but attendance has dropped to 40 per cent in the last week.
That's within a new cap of 60 per cent capacity put in place by the Department of Education on Tuesday. The department is covering the cost of empty spots. Mombourquette did not have an estimate for the total cost of the program.
The province has said it hopes children of parents who have no other child-care options are able to take empty spots that fall within the cap. However, several centres told CBC News they are refusing to accept new children at this time.
Keating said she did get one call from the province asking about placing two children aged seven and nine, but she said no.
"We've been bubbled for a year. I've been very, very careful on who we've let in. We have an extensive process where we bring families in, there's a tour involved, there's registration. It takes a while. We do a gradual entry," she said. "We've decided as a centre we're not taking people that we don't know."
Keating said provincial staff explained to her that accepting new children is a choice, not mandatory.
Although initially the province said centres that closed their doors voluntarily would not be eligible for provincial funding, the minister softened that stance Thursday when asked about possible penalties for centres that refuse to accept new children.
"There would be no penalty, we're going to be as flexible as possible with families to support them, and of course I can't thank our early childhood educators enough for adjusting as we adjust through the pandemic," Mombourquette said.
"There's never a scenario where a child-care centre would lose funding."
Most centres running at less than 50 per cent
The union CUPE, which represents about 200 daycare workers, has been pushing for the province to lower the maximum capacity on child-care centres to 50 per cent.
Mombourquette said most daycare centres are already at 50 per cent or less. The department has worked to get five centres in HRM that were above 60 per cent below the cap.
Some parents in four of those centres chose to pull their children from care. At one centre, the province opened up a section of a nearby school to space out the children.
The department said all 50 families that needed help placing children in emergency child care have been accommodated.
CUPE and some early childhood educators have spoken about a feeling of confusion over the closure of pre-primary classrooms when private daycare operators are being kept open.
"Historically ... early childhood educators have been treated differently than the school sector. They're paid less. They don't have pensions," said CUPE president Nan McFadgen.
McFadgen said the work of ECEs is predominantly care work carried out by women and the pay is low, which she called an inequity.
When asked whether the public pre-primary system could be called into action to support private daycare operators, Mombourquette responded that he has "full confidence in the processes that we put in place."
"We learned a lot from the last wave," he said.
He added that daycares tend to be smaller than schools and are able to be in close contact with parent groups and Public Health.
"Ideally we're going to get back to a point where our public systems will be open," he said. "But right now they're closed. It was a recommendation of Public Health just based on the size of our schools and the contacts they have in the community, where early childhood centres are a little bit more close-knit.
"So we're going to continue to evolve as the epidemiology evolves."
Public exposure notices 'when necessary'
Health Minister Zach Churchill also faced questions Thursday about the policy for notifying the public of exposures at a daycare.
"It's critical that information on COVID cases is coming from Public Health," Churchill said after a cabinet meeting. "They are the ones responsible for protecting people's privacy and for ensuring the appropriate people are made aware if they are close contacts. So they have to find that balance.
"When the risk is deemed necessary, the public is informed of those. We trust them to oversee that process."
No specific policy has been sent out to daycares about whether to notify parents in the event of a case or exposure at a centre, but several directors told CBC News they plan to immediately notify parents if they become aware of a case, while protecting the privacy of the family involved.