Calls are growing for the Ontario government to make COVID-19 tests available to children attending the province’s daycares, with parents saying the lack of access is stoking anxiety.
Last week, the province said PCR testing for COVID-19 would be limited to high-risk groups amid soaring infections, and memos from education ministry officials outlined a decision to stop reporting cases in schools and child-care settings due to "changes to case and contact management."
Schools across the province are moving classes online this week in response to the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, but daycares – which care for many children too young to be vaccinated – are still open.
Stephanie Muskat, a pregnant frontline hospital worker with two children in daycare in Toronto, said she's "been incredibly anxious" about the recent changes and how they affect her entire household.
Not knowing if her children have COVID-19 means she won't know if she's carrying the virus to work if she happens to be asymptomatic, thereby putting patients and others at risk, she said. She's also concerned that the virus could get passed on to her 73-year-old mother, who lives with her family.
"It's a very confusing and rough time for me, but also all of my colleagues and friends who have also have kids in child care," said Muskat, whose children are four and two.
Under the province's new rules, gold-standard PCR tests are available only for high-risk individuals who are symptomatic or are at risk of severe illness from the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Others who develop symptoms need to assume they have COVID-19 and isolate at home, with their household contacts, for at least five days if they're vaccinated or under the age of 12. Isolation ends if symptoms have improved for at least 24 hours.
Muskat said she'd like to see PCR testing made available to children in child-care settings once again, adding she doesn't see "how the economy is going to continue" without it if working parents are going to have to isolate as soon as their children have any COVID-19 symptoms.
Ottawa parent Sarah Kennell, who has a one-year-old daughter in daycare, was similarly concerned, saying the province's changes have made her feel "incredible disappointment and panic and fear."
"We knew the projections were going to be as bad as they are three weeks ago. And yet, we're just scrambling now as parents, I think, to make the best possible decisions for ourselves," said Kennell, who also has a four-year-old in kindergarten.
"The burden and the onus is placed on the individual and particularly individuals who are caring for unvaccinated, immunocompromised, vulnerable people in our society."
An online petition calling on the government to give children in daycare access to PCR tests had nearly 4,000 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.
Opposition politicians are issuing similar calls for 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 the policy halting the reporting of daycare cases amounts to a "coverup" by Premier Doug Ford's government that's causing parents more anxiety.
"Children and early childhood educators in our daycares don’t have access to the PPE or tests that our schools are getting, but they face the same risks," Del Duca said in a statement. "Doug Ford needs to get PPE and tests into daycares immediately, and stop hiding the number of COVID cases.”
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.
"I’m hearing from parents who are afraid, furious, and thrown into crisis because they can’t take their kids to child care now," NDP Child Care critic Bhutila Karpoche said in a written statement.
"It’s not ok to leave anyone at heightened risk of getting the virus, and when it comes to unvaccinated little ones under five, it’s atrocious. Babies cannot be collateral damage for Ford’s attempt to cover up the COVID numbers."
The education minister's office did not immediately provide a comment.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2021.
- with files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press