As the province plans to provide free emergency child care as part of a modified Step Two of its pandemic reopening plan, daycares in Waterloo Region that once offered that relief won’t this time around.

On Monday, Premier Doug Ford announced new measures meant to blunt the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 – which includes offering free emergency child care spaces for healthcare and eligible frontline workers; but, Christa O’Connor, the executive director at Creative Beginnings Child Care Centre in Baden and board member with the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, says there likely won’t be the same number of spaces as previously offered during the pandemic.

“I think child care is going to see a crisis of staffing,” said O’Connor. “I think we’re going to start seeing rolling closures, whether it be individual rooms or whole centres because they won’t be able to staff them.”

The centre has previously offered emergency spaces twice during the pandemic.

Lori Prospero, the CEO of RisingOaks Early Learning in Kitchener, adds the child care centre also made the “difficult” decision to forgo offering emergency child care spaces, after previously supplying four rooms throughout the pandemic.

“When exploring whether we had the capacity to offer [emergency child care], we looked at the needs of our infant, toddler and preschool programs. We have several ongoing staff vacancies due to the workforce crisis in this sector prior to the announced closure and we also had to consider any vacancies that might be created because we have staff with young children who will now be at home doing online learning.,” said Prospero in a statement. “The remaining school-age educators will be needed to cover any staffing vacancies due to COVID-19 symptoms, isolation requirements and lack of testing.”

In Waterloo, it’s a similar story at Emmanuel at Brighton Child Care Centre.

Dana Bernhardt, the executive director of the centre, expects the COVID-19 isolation requirements will see rooms closed at the centre – she’s down four staff already.

“If we have multiple staff off in one classroom, we won’t be able to staff that one classroom so, we’re going to do everything we can to stay open for our families who need to go to work but, I think it’s going to be very difficult,” she said.

Isolation requirements now mandate five days of isolation following the onset of symptoms for those who are vaccinated against COVID-19, as well as children under 12. Those who are unvaccinated must still isolate for 10 days.

Those changes announced on Friday and this week took the daycare sector by surprise, according to Bernhardt.

“We were blown away by the changes,” said Bernhardt. “We could have cases of COVID in the child care centre right now, today, and no one would know. [There are] no rapid tests available anymore, there are no requirements to get a PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test if there are symptomatic children or staff.”

Some of those new changes include testing requirements only for high-risk groups in Ontario and no further reporting of cases in schools and child care settings.

The province will continue to report school and child care facility closures.

Bernhardt points to working with a population who can’t wear masks and is ineligible for vaccination is also a concern, which she feels has gone unaddressed by the province. Bernhardt says they’ve had to rely on donations and purchasing those supplies themselves.

O’Connor says the Coalition has been calling for N95 masks to be supplied to early childhood educators, but says teachers within public school boards are given priority.

“As a leader, it’s really hard, it’s difficult to say to our educators ‘come secure these programs and educate these children and care for them but also, we can’t provide you all the right protections that you should have that school boards would have as well,” said O’Connor.

PROVINCE RESPONDS

In a statement to CTV News, Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce defends the government’s actions to protect the child care sector.

“To support frontline workers and their families, our government is once again providing them with free emergency child care for school-aged children to allow these workers to continue performing these critical jobs,” read the statement. “Our government has elevated our safety protocols in child care, including stricter screening and deploying unfitted N95 masks to support frontline workers as we take action to protect families from COVID-19. The Chief Medical Officer of Health believes that these measures will ensure child care remains as safe as possible for children and staff.”