Opposition is growing to Quebec's new controversial rules about COVID-19 in childcare centres (CPEs), which exempt children and educators in contact with a positive case from isolating.
Under new rules quietly passed on to childcare services by Quebec's Family Ministry on Dec. 31, children and staff who have been in contact with an infected person at the daycare can continue to show up at the centre — provided they have no symptoms.
On Monday afternoon, a union representing 3,200 educators in CPEs called for Family Minister Mathieu Lacombe to follow the lead of Montreal Public Health and suspend the new directives.
"Child-care workers and staff work in close quarters within two metres of children aged zero to five who are neither vaccinated nor masked," said president of the Federation of Early Childhood Workers of Quebec (FIPEQ-CSQ), Valérie Grenon.
"We need to consider the unique nature of our services and get clear, science-based answers to reassure our members."
Earlier Monday, Montreal Public Health said it would be suspending the application of the new measures and would continue "to isolate moderate-risk contacts until further notice," a recorded message from the department said.
Therefore, in Montreal CPEs, children and staff who have been in contact with a positive case at the daycare must still isolate for 10 days, per the province's directives before the holidays, regardless of their symptoms. Testing for the virus is also recommended before the return to daycare.
Elsewhere in Quebec, according to the new directives, if a child in a group tests positive or if there are several cases reported in the same daycare, both children and staff who are asymptomatic are not required to get tested and may continue to frequent the facility.
Until now, during the isolation period of a child who had been in contact with a positive case, parents were asked to get their child tested twice, even if they were asymptomatic.
Quebec family minister addresses concerns
Quebec's relaxed rules have been widely criticized by some of the province's daycare operators and associations.
"I find this alarming," said Brigitte Prévost, general director of À Petits Pas CPE in Dorval, in a Monday morning interview.
She says the government's new protocols are the wrong move, considering children in daycare are too young to be vaccinated, they don't wear masks and asking them to keep a two-metre distance is nearly impossible.
"We risk finding ourselves with uncontrollable outbreaks," she said.
According to Radio-Canada, outside of Montreal, other regional public health directors have expressed their concerns about the new directives in CPEs and plan to follow the example of Montreal Public Health.
The family minister addressed these concerns in a Facebook post Monday afternoon and said a meeting will take place in the "next few hours."
"Of course, I have noticed that these new guidelines are raising a lot of questions among parents and educators," Lacombe wrote.
"I have therefore requested that [Quebec Public Health] meet with the associations representing CPEs, daycares and family daycare co-ordinating offices to explain this recommendation and to answer their questions."
Lancombe insists that "the safety of children and staff is the priority" of his ministry, the government and public health officials.
Keep kids at home if you can: association president
Samir Alahmad, president of the Private Daycare Association of Quebec, says the province's recommended measures are surprising, given the significant increase in positive cases he's seen over the past three to four weeks.
"It's really a major change," he said in an interview on Radio-Canada's Tout un Matin Monday morning.
"Do we have a bigger risk for contamination? I'm not a specialist, but I can tell you yes, for sure, we have an additional risk. Is it a calculated risk given the situation? It's up to the [public health] authorities to tell us."
Alahmad said child care is stuck between the government's desire to keep services open as much as possible, educators who fear for their safety, and parents who have different needs.
Although the ultimate decision is up to parents, Alahmad suggests that those who can, should keep their children home for the next few weeks.
"If I was a parent, I'd say personally if I had a Plan B today, I would use it for a minimum of two or three weeks," he said, describing the extremely delicate situation in daycare centres.
"We know the more we have people together, the higher risk [for outbreaks] we have."
Alahmad isn't sure if it's a good idea for an asymptomatic staff member who has been in contact with a positive case to continue to work — as some health-care workers can — but he understands the pressure to avoid severe staff shortages and daycare shutdowns.
"I tell you, there's no clear answer," he said.