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With Nova Scotia in lockdown and their work deemed essential, early childhood educators are fearing for their safety and demanding the province implement additional measures to help keep them safe.
“I feel vulnerable, I feel disappointed, and honestly, I feel the government has failed us,” Corey Myers, an early childhood educator (ECE) working in Eastern Passage, said in an interview Wednesday.
“We’re in the worst wave of the pandemic this province has seen. We’re at our most vulnerable time…and it’s like you want to throw us in the lion’s den but with little protection.”
Myers, 22, has been an early childhood educator for more than three years and is the inclusion coordinator at Tallahassee Early Learning Centre. Last night, his social media post using the hashtag #GiveECEsAVoice took off and was shared by more than 300 people as of Wednesday afternoon. It has sparked a grassroots campaign to share the concerns of non-unionized ECEs.
As essential workers, Myers said they want to know what additional policies the provincial government plans to implement to further enhance their safety, particularly as they welcome children of health care and other essential pandemic workers during the provincial lockdown.
“We’re not pushing to close. That’s not what we’re asking for. We know we’re essential,” he said. “We understand that part of our work more than anyone else. What we are saying is we need more protection.”
More personal protective equipment, a desire to be prioritized for vaccination, and clearer information on capacity and closures are just a few of their concerns.
After reopening from the lockdown last June, Myers said his child care centre was promised masks, gloves, and sanitizer to help keep them safe. But he said the quantities they receive are “nothing compared to the need.”
He said in November, they sent a letter to Nova Scotia Health requesting more PPE and were told they’d exceeded their quota for hand sanitizer, didn’t qualify for gloves, and could only get one box of 50 masks intended to last three months.
They continue to receive that same allotment of 50 masks every three months. When schools are open and the after school program is running, Myers said they can have up to 170 children and 15 to 20 staff in the centre each day.
“That 50 masks for three months is no guarantee of safety,” he said. “Masks are very hard to get our hands on.”
He said they’ve received three orders of hand sanitizers since the pandemic began. The first two included 12 500-ml bottles of hand sanitizer. The third was an order of 12 1-litre bottles. They submitted a request for a fourth allotment this week, but still don’t qualify for gloves.
Myers said much of the discussion among ECEs online last night was about the need for the province to provide more PPE to help daycare centres.
“We have an infant room, we have toddler rooms, and they require diapering, close contact with and personal hygiene for the children. To say we’re not qualified for gloves? I think that’s a basic need for our personal protection through this pandemic,” he said.
“Maybe the government should be more prone to send us more of these things. How are you helping to protect us? We saw in Ontario they initiated more PPE back there. They had the masks and the goggles, they provided those materials.”
Myers said the mandatory masking order implemented Tuesday for children between the ages of two and four in daycare settings isn’t a realistic measure. He said most masks aren’t the right size for small faces, smaller masks are hard to find, and if not worn properly masks are ineffective.
“Those masks that aren’t the right size don’t even stay on their face. Their nose is coming out, it’s falling off their face several times, they’re touching it, it’s being exposed,” he said. “So is putting masks on children two to four really the solution here? No, I don’t believe so.”
Frustrated and fearful
CUPE Nova Scotia is the union representing staff at seven non-profit child care centres in Halifax and Bridgewater. President Nan McFadgen said their ECE members are also frustrated and fearful.
“I would ask any Nova Scotian, if I were to say to you today, ‘Now tomorrow you’re going to work and the three pillars of hand washing, masking, and distancing won’t be able to happen all the time, maybe some of the time, and also you’re not vaccinated, but we still need you to come to work,’” McFadgen said in an interview.
“What are those people going to say? ‘Yeah, I’m going to take a pass. Thank you, though, for the offer.’”
Because child care workers weren’t prioritized for vaccines, McFadgen said they’re especially concerned with the potential for exposure given the presence of variant strains and the fact young children struggle with physical distancing and mask wearing.
“They’re most concerned about their safety and the lack of strategies or processes in that announcement (Tuesday),” McFadgen said.
She said while she can’t speak for every child care centre, she’s also hearing that some are struggling to find masks that fit children younger than five.
“That’s the information that I have, that they have adult sized masks. Those faces are very little, and fit is important,” she said.
Early childhood educators have also expressed concerns about the safety of maintaining classroom cohorts now that they’re making space for children of health care and other pandemic workers who require child care.
“If your kid all of a sudden needs child care, we don’t want your kid mixing with all the other kids that we’ve been cohorting with for a year,” she said.
“We want your kid with all the other kids that are joining the new cohort and make your own cohort. That’s the whole thing, keeping your cohort small. It just increases your safety, lowers your exposure.”
The province’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang said during a media briefing on Tuesday that for the most part, COVID-19 wasn’t spreading in daycares.
During Wednesday’s provincial COVID-19 media briefing, Alicia Draus from Global News asked Strang what the province can do to protect ECEs “right now” as daycares are an essential service and required to remain open.
Strang said protocols have been in place at daycares all along, including screening children who feel unwell and enhanced cleaning measures. He also pointed to Tuesday’s announcement that children between the ages of two and four are now required to wear masks whenever possible.
“If we have cases, then we do our usual follow up, identify close contacts, work with the individual daycares,” Strang said.
“We recognize the challenges in daycares but we’ve had good COVID protocols all along.”
Draus also asked Premier Iain Rankin if the province would consider danger pay or any kind of bonus for ECEs, or advocate for one from the federal government. Rankin said they’d certainly be advocating for support for child care workers if there’s an eligible federal program.
“Again they’re the ones standing up to enable us to keep our healthcare system strong,” Rankin said.
“We really do need their support during these challenging times, but we have the right protocols in place. When there are issues at child care centres there is a process to be followed and if they need to be closed they will be.”
Rankin went on to say with more people staying home, the province is doing everything it can to prevent cases from entering child care centres. He also noted that child care centres have remained open in other jurisdictions with circuit breaker approaches.
In a media release issued Wednesday evening, the Department of Education/Early Childhood Development said the province will continue to pay for personal protective equipment for early child care educators, and that emergency costs incurred by centres will be covered.
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