The provincial government has announced free child care for essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but some operators say they're being strong-armed into reopening, and one parent says she's concerned about the possible health and safety fallout.
Early childhood educator and advocate Susan Baker says regulated daycares have been told by government to open their doors to children of essential workers or risk having their compensation package revoked. The province had originally announced on Sunday it would pay regulated homes so parents wouldn't be on the hook for child-care costs while their kids were home.
"We were blindsided by this," Baker said Wednesday.
"We want to make sure it's safe for our workers, for the children in our care, and our own families, and right now they're asking for social distancing. I'm not sure how we're going to social distance a two-year-old from another two-year-old."
They're not asking teachers to open up a classroom and look after, after-school age children. - Susan Baker
Baker said early childhood educators are scratching their heads over how to properly educate and provide care.
"It seems what's being asked of us right now is to step in for child-care sitting and minding," she said.
Baker is suggesting early child-care educators go into homes to limit the possible spread of the virus.
"They're not asking teachers to open up a classroom and look after after-school age children, but they're asking us to do so, but not with the programs we're used to delivering.'
Mom out of options
It's not just operators struggling with the decision.
Jodi Quigley, a single mom of a seven-year-old boy, works as a personal-care attendant at Pleasantville Towers, a long-term care home in St. John's.
"I'm really torn," Quigley said when reached by phone Thursday, about using the free child-care service. "In my ideal world, I would love it if he didn't have to."
Quigley has been relying on her mother for child care, but as more cases of coronavirus are discovered locally, that plan is on hold.
"She's quite healthy herself but she's living in a 50-plus condo, and like we know from health-care professionals, the children are great carriers for this," she said.
"With the global pandemic around the world, my mom is worried."
Quigley can also rely on her sister, but she said it won't work in the long term, as she herself has two children and is working from home.
Quigley is one of many essential workers who are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, she needs access to stable child care. On the other, Quigley is concerned over the spread of COVID-10 reaching child-care centres.
"My child could sit down right now and tell you everything about coronavirus, COVID-19, where it stems from, how it gets transmitted," Quigley said.
"He knows he's not supposed to be close with his friends, but he's a little boy."
Quigley's greatest concern is that the children who will need free daycare come from homes where their parents could be on the front line of the virus.
"What happens if you have [children] of acute care, long-term care, police officer parents, and all of these children are together. How are the [early childhood educators] going to teach these children?"
Premier addresses concerns
In the daily COVID-19 briefing Thursday, Premier Dwight Ball asked early childhood educators and daycares to work with the province to help essential workers.
"We continue to support them, continue to make payments with their operating grants, as an example, continue to pay them as if these spaces were full, Ball said.
"All we're asking now — as part of this province working together to support those essential workers and others in the future — is that they take on a reduced capacity."
Baker was watching the news conference, and disagrees with some of Ball's comments.
"He's using that, that they're being paid, but not all centres get [operating grants].
"I know [Ball] has a lot on his plate right now dealing with more than this — we're dealing with an entire society that's trying not to collapse, but we're trying to do that too. We don't want to put more people at risk."
Ball said free child care may soon be opened up to other essential workers, like grocery store clerks.
Right now, the government says the free child care will be for ages one to 13.