As Nova Scotia experiences record-breaking spread of COVID-19, early childhood educators (ECEs) in the province are calling for more protection.
While businesses, schools and communities go into a two-week shutdown, child-care centres will remain open during the third wave of the pandemic.
As of Wednesday afternoon, however, workers in the sector said little additional support has been provided to protect them and the children in their charge as they carry out this essential work.
“Value isn’t there — that’s not even a word that comes into the category of words that described how I feel as an essential worker right now,” said Corey Myers, an ECE at the Tallahassee Early Learning Centre in Eastern Passage, N.S.
“I want them to define for me how pre-primary teachers were not safe, but we are safe. Why was pre-primary care not left open if that’s what we’re talking about?”
Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer, confirmed Tuesday that COVID-19 has been detected in child-care centres in the province, although that doesn’t necessarily mean the centres are the source of infection. One in the Halifax area, however, has an “outbreak” and a decision is being made on whether to close it.
“But that’s one amongst hundreds of them across the province,” Strang said. “We do know that across the board, daycares remain a very safe place.”
On Tuesday, the province announced new rules requiring children over the age of two to wear masks anywhere they can’t physically distance, including daycare centres and outdoor playgrounds.
But Myers, and CUPE Nova Scotia, still have questions about why child-care centres aren’t receiving enough personal protective equipment, whether capacity limits should be set on how many children can attend, and whether it’s safe for the children of health-care workers to be in the same space as other children.
“We suggested, for instance, that maybe emergency care should be offered in a separate location … some other venue so we’re not mixing the cohorts,” said Margot Nickerson, an ECE and president of CUPE Local 4745.
“I have just been inundated different forms of communication with early childhood educators who are very, very worried about going to work right now.”
CUPE Local 4745 represents six non-profit child-care centres in the Halifax Regional Municipality. Representatives from CUPE Nova Scotia attended a meeting with the deputy minister of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development on Wednesday morning to present their concerns and chart a path forward for the sector during the third wave.
Those discussions come in the aftermath of what Nickerson described as somewhat “confusing” instructions from the department, issued Tuesday after the decision was taken to keep daycares open.
The letter, shared with Global News, indicated that health-care and essential workers who require child care will be connected with centres in “their area of choice,” and that ECEs should adhere to those requests as much as possible.
“(Strang) has been pushing not interacting with other communities and staying within your own community … so where is the logic in that for our safety and our benefit?” asked Myers.
Nickerson also expressed concerns about wage protection for ECEs in the event they are required to stay home and self-isolate or their care centre is shut down due to exposure.
In a brief emailed statement, the department told Global News that news on protecting ECEs and additional instructions for the sector will be announced in the Wednesday afternoon COVID-19 briefing, scheduled to begin at 3 p.m.
This week, several ECEs in Nova Scotia have written to Global News to express their concerns with workplace health and safety, most of whom requested anonymity to protect their jobs.
One described ECEs and their very young students as “basically sitting ducks.”
“If COVID ever hit my classroom, there is really nothing in place that would protect us,” she wrote. “We are not being prioritized for vaccine even though we are some of the most exposed workers. I actually ended up on stress leave for several months due to the burnout in this field.”
Another ECE who works in the Halifax area decried the lack of transparency around when a positive case is connected to child care. School cases are announced publicly, they wrote, but daycare cases are only shared with those directly affected.
Families who send their children and workers in the sector more broadly “have a right to know,” they wrote.
“(Children) are too young to know how to cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze. They put everything in their mouth. Childcare setting has a more dense, small, mutual connected space compared to schools for sure, which means transmission can happen more easily,” they said.
“Considering all of these, I found these two different standards between school and childcare to deal with a positive COVID case are very disappointing.”