The front entrance of St. Margaret. There is a tent and a sign that says "COVID screening area"

What it’s like operating child care centres during a pandemic

While there is no denying the last seven months have been confusing, overwhelming and scary, we wanted to take a moment to shine a little light on a good news story.

You may know that child care is a significant portion of the work YWCA Cambridge does in the community. Pre COVID, we provided approximately 360 child care spaces in Cambridge. The shutdown threw a lot of things into chaos for us and our service users. We, along with the rest of the world, are learning new information about the virus and its impact on people and communities almost daily, and doing our best to adapt.

When the provincial government announced that child care centres could re-open, we were naturally apprehensive. What does re-opening look like? How can we ensure our spaces are as safe as possible for staff and children? With smaller cohorts, which children get to return?

We are so fortunate to have the staff team that we do; they are committed to the work they do and the children and families they work with. As soon as the announcement was made, all staff sprang into action preparing themselves and their centres for re-opening – this meant wading through pages and pages of documents from public health and the Ministry of Education, overhauling the learning spaces to facilitate easier sanitizing and physical distancing. Together, staff were able to prepare our child care centres for a whole new way of operating and with much smaller class sizes. With bated breath, we opened our centres on July 13.

A shelf with bins on it, a sticker on the floor shows two people

Staff produced videos demonstrating all the changes to child care. Children are screened before entering, and there are stickers that indicate how many children can be in a place at a time. 

All three of our child care centre supervisors described their re-opening as overwhelmingly (and surprisingly) positive. Kim Whalen, supervisor at our St Elizabeth centre, described watching one of her preschoolers giggling uncontrollably as she entered the centre, so excited to be back with her friends and educators.

One parent told Kim that her child woke up at 4:00 a.m. that morning, asking whether it was time yet to go to child care.

Wendy Gilchrist, supervisor of our Ryerson centre, described a similar excitement shared by the children she welcomed back to child care. One grade 1 child asked Wendy if he could hug her: “Sure,” said Wendy. “It was the best hug ever. He gave me one of those genuine hugs that lasted for about 15 seconds, gave me this big smile, and then headed in,” she said.

Brenda Davis, supervisor of our St. Margaret centre, talked with the children about how things would be different. There’s now a cool tent outside that you need to visit before entering the centre! One familiar face to the children, Fatma, was now in full PPE and taking everyone’s temperature, but staff made sure children weren’t frightened. Instead, it was fun to see Fatma all dressed up like that.  

Many of the older children shared with Brenda that they’d noticed their parents wearing masks, and knew things were a bit weird right now, but that it was ok; They just wanted to be with their friends again and back at daycare.

Little child in child care centre in Cambridge
A child stands beside a chart paper where her educator has written her questions about her first day back
A boy stands, mouth agape, beside a chart paper with his questions about being back at child care

In order to best prepare children for what they would encounter upon returning to their centres, child care staff created videos giving tours of the new way of entering child care, what to expect and why it was happening. They also showed families how the classrooms were different. Now, each child has their own bin of arts and craft supplies. Their very own! With their name on it! Now, we can only sit with one friend, and when we line up to go outside, we need to make sure we’re standing on a sticker that’s on the floor, spaced 6 feet from other stickers just like it.

The pandemic has shown us something we might not have ever learned without it: children are resilient and they are adaptable.

We’ve witnessed them all ease into this new normal. Sometimes, we need to talk about how weird it feels to be back in the same space but to be using it differently, and playing with our friends in different ways. However, they figure it out.

It’s difficult to think about the long term impacts the pandemic will have on children. The isolation, the constant changes, the lack of human contact.  But if there’s one thing we know, it’s that they’re back in their happy place and they’re thriving once again.

As for what happens this September? Every day we’re planning for the next change, and preparing for any surprises. As best as we can, we continue to share what we know when we know it with our families. Our main priority through all of this, though, as Brenda says, “is making sure the kids in our care can just be kids.”

A child paints a rock
A child plays with a toy

It’s good to be back!

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