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Daycares are opening across the country, but can they really operate safely?

Coronavirus: Ontario daycares scramble to reopen
WATCH: Daycare centres across Ontario are rushing to reopen. The provincial government gave the facilities permission to reopen on Friday.

The reopening of daycare centres in regions across the country has brought a host of new rules and guidelines as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Ontario is the latest province to allow all licenced daycare centres to open, starting June 12. 

Daycares were allowed to open in Quebec on May 11, except for Montreal. The province’s largest city opened its daycares on June 1, having been initially excluded due to the amount of COVID-19 cases coming out of the region. In B.C., many childcare centres were allowed to continue operations under new guidelines that included the removal of toys that cannot be frequently cleaned.

READ MORE: Ontario child care centres to reopen Friday, some parents reluctant to send kids

Stephen Lecce, Ontario’s education minister said at a press conference in advance of the reopening that all children will be screened before they enter their daycare. There will also be a cap of 10 people in each “defined space,” Lecce said. 

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Coronavirus outbreak: Education Minister says plan for reopening child-care centres will ‘keep kids safe’
Coronavirus outbreak: Education Minister says plan for reopening child-care centres will ‘keep kids safe’

Other guidelines released by the government in a document included that activities like singing and playing with shared objects should be avoided. There were also numerous guidelines around food consumption, including that there should be no self-serving or sharing of food. 

Within the document, the ministry concedes that physical distancing in a childcare environment will be difficult and that a “welcoming and caring environment” must be maintained. 

Lecce told reporters the ministry will be conducting inspections and a $3,000 fine is possible for those who do not follow the new guidelines.

READ MORE: Montreal daycares reopen as Quebec continues to ease coronavirus measures

Jay Kaufman, an epidemiologist at McGill University in Montreal, says that Quebec’s daycare reopenings have been a success and other regions should be able to follow suit, with cautions in place.

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Some of the guidelines listed by the Ontario government however, do not all seem evidence-based, he said. 

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Coronavirus outbreak: Ford says he wants teachers, daycare staff tested, not students

“Where do they get the idea that it’s dangerous for kids to sing?” he said. Research around the spread of the coronavirus has shown that adults signing could cause the disease to travel, but there are no reports that show the same for children, Kaufman explained. 

“For small kids, you can’t control how loudly they speak, why would it be more dangerous to sing than speak?” he said.

“I don’t necessarily agree with all the measures that are in place.”

Implementing realistic measures that don’t cause any emotional harm to children, like washing hands, adults wearing masks and the frequent cleaning of surfaces areas are reasonable and doable, Kaufman said. 

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“You don’t want to terrify the children … you have to have a balanced attitude between risk and the benefits of schooling,” he said.

READ MORE: Can we really keep kids distant in school amid COVID-19? It won’t be easy, experts say

Children are less likely to become infected if they are exposed to the virus, have a lower rate of manifesting the disease or passing the disease along, Kaufman said.

The risk for children of COVID-19 is low versus the emotional toll of some of the guidelines, he added.

It’s possible to let children behave like children to a certain degree without fearing the virus, Kaufman explained, pointing to school reopenings in Denmark, Germany and France where they are functioning with minor outbreaks, but not dramatic ones.

“It’s gone very well. With reasonable measures, they reopened and it’s very successful,” he said. “This can be done and it can be done safely.”

‘It will be challenging’

Screening children, removing objects that are frequent touch points, and ensuring cleaning is done frequently are just some of many measures needed to safely open daycares, said Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, a professor of molecular, cellular and chemical biology of microbial infections at York University in Toronto.

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“They are thinking about the complexities around opening daycare centres,” she said. It’s important that these guidelines cater to staff and families as well, and it’s not easy for daycares to adhere to them without preparation, she said. 

READ MORE: Child care is back, but do working parents have to send their kids?

In Ontario, regulations for staff state that they can only work at one location and that supervisors should limit their movement around the room. Guidelines include resources on the use of personal protective equipment — when and how to wear protection.

“It will be challenging,” said Golemi-Kotra. But at this point, many children are accustomed to a new reality that involves frequent handwashing and seeing more adults in masks, she said, suggesting that will hopefully make the transition to daycare not as jarring.

She recommends people speaking to their child before daycare reopens to prepare them for the new rules in a way that makes sense for their age.

How to talk to your kids about COVID-19
How to talk to your kids about COVID-19

There also needs to be constant communication with staff and management about how to follow distancing rules, and what to do when a child needs to be comforted, she said. 

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Staff can be instructed to use blankets or cloths in lieu of direct contact with toddlers and infants so that contact is possible in certain situations, the Ontario regulations explain.

READ MORE: 4 Toronto emergency child-care centre staff members, 8-month-old test positive for coronavirus

However, not all experts agree on whether daycares can be open in a way that’s considered safe, even with specific guidelines in place. 

The Ontario guidelines, in particular, are not practical and it’s impossible to prevent children from engaging with each other, said Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, specializing in pediatrics and infectious diseases. 

Montreal daycares reopen as province continues to ease coronavirus measures
Montreal daycares reopen as province continues to ease coronavirus measures

“Probably what’s going to happen… are the children are going to get infected,” she said. “That’s the reality, we can try to reduce the risk of spread to the daycare providers, but probably they are at risk of getting it.”

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Banerji is also concerned about children bringing the virus home to their families. Many children live with family members who are at higher risk to have worse outcomes from a coronavirus infection, including people with suppressed immune systems, she said.

Daycares may need to open because it can’t be held off forever as many families are suffering without that childcare, and kids may have their mental health impacted by not seeing their friends, she said. But if they are opening, provinces need to be prepared for some to become infected, she said. 

Banjeri says ultimately, she questions how effective many of the guidelines will be in curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Daycares have already been preparing

Childcare is an essential service that is crucial to any provinces reopening plan, and many daycares would have already been preparing for increased regulations, said Lisa Parise, the vice-president of Wee Watch, a group of licenced home daycare agencies in Ontario that have remained open during the pandemic for the children of front-line workers. 

READ MORE: Canada looking at expanded funding for child care in post COVID-19 recovery

As Wee Watch locations across the province have already been operating during the pandemic, Parisa says she feels confident to implement further guidelines that were announced this week. 

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“Some of these would have been anticipated changes anyways. We’ve been communicating them all along,” she said. 

So far, most of Wee Watch’s home care locations have had only about three children a day so following protocols to keep everyone safe hasn’t been difficult, said Parise.

But it is a lot of extra work for the providers and some of the tougher recommendations to implement are around programming and play, she said. 

“It’s a harder to pill to take when you have to say children can’t sing,” she said. 

“Those are the ones where we have to go back and talk to our providers, from a positive standpoint and say it’s about protection and safety… and really have a conversation about all the great things that still can happen within those childcare settings.”

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Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.