Child-care workers on the front line, but not at the front of the queue

·4 min read

Storytime, shoe-tying and diaper-changing are all part of a typical shift at daycare.

“In our field, especially with the younger ones, you can’t keep your distance,” said an early-childhood educator (ECE) at a child-care centre based out of a Catholic school in Ancaster, who spoke with The Spectator on the condition of anonymity. “They still want to sit on your lap, and if they’re hurt or crying your job is to comfort them.”

While most Hamilton educators, including ECEs that work in kindergarten classrooms, enter another period of remote learning, child-care workers continue to provide in-person care for kids — a necessity for many working parents — and most of them without a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We have the same exposures, we have special needs, as well, we have children that are unmasked,” the ECE said. “It kind of hurts that we’re kind of pushed back.”

ECEs are chronically underpaid and most don’t have union representation, limiting their negotiation power.

Hamilton child-care providers are joining the growing call to bump up child-care workers — who are part of the current phase of the vaccine rollout, but not yet eligible — in the vaccine queue.

“Early-childhood educators cannot work remotely, so they should be the educators that are vaccinated first,” said Marni Flaherty, CEO of Today’s Family Early Learning and Child Care, who penned an April 14 letter urging the province to make child-care workers eligible for the vaccine.

“Any teacher or anybody else ... who can work at home and work remotely, should be vaccinated second.”

In hot spots in Toronto and Peel, teachers — most of whom are working from home indefinitely — are eligible for vaccines. Staff working in special education classes, which will continue to take place in physical buildings next week, and homebound individuals in Hamilton are also able to book appointments.

The province says vaccination of essential workers who cannot work from home, which include those in child care, is expected to begin mid-May.

“Our commitment is to get every single child-care worker in Ontario vaccinated as soon as supply becomes available,” Caitlin Clark, spokesperson Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in an email to The Spectator. “Quite frankly we need more vaccines from the federal government to deliver on this urgent imperative.”

In Hamilton, there have been 11 outbreaks — one ongoing — at child-care facilities since the beginning of September. In the same period, there have been 34 outbreaks at elementary and secondary schools.

“Keeping our educators and our families safe right now is the biggest thing,” said Jessica Henderson, registered ECE and supervisor of Huntington Park Programs at Today’s Family, adding that screening, PPE and sanitation means more work for staff. “I’d say that that is a big chunk of our day.”

In an April 13 letter, Medhat Mahdy, president of YMCA Ontario, urged the province to vaccinate child-care workers, who “have been on the front lines delivering care to children and supporting families at each stage of this pandemic.”

“There is a level of worry and concern within our child-care educators in terms of going to work,” said Jim Commerford, president and CEO of the YMCA Hamilton Burlington Brantford. “We recognize it as an essential service, it has been recognized by the province of Ontario that we’re not going to see an economic recovery without quality licensed child care.”

Beth Hanns, an early-childhood educator at Sir William Osler YMCA Child Care Centre in Dundas, has been caring for kids since the centre reopened in July.

“We actually have a few parents are doctors or nurses or teachers,” she said. “They definitely have said multiple times, ‘We don’t know what we would do without you.’”

In an interview with The Spectator, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said vaccination of child-care workers is “extremely important.”

“The calls are getting louder and louder to vaccinate the front-line child-care workers,” she said. “Other essential workers will not be able to go to work if their child care falls apart.”

Research shows that women are among those hardest hit by the pandemic, leading some to dub the global economic crisis in Canada a “she-cession” — the first of its kind.

“Child care largely is what enables and supports women in engagement in the workforce,” said Horwath. “This is one of those supports that need to be there so that women don’t have to continue to withdraw from the labour force.”

Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator