When a child and then staff member of her Fernwood preschool tested positive for COVID-19 this month, Catriona Brown began contacting health officials to ask what to do, but says she couldn’t get any answers.
“It’s actually quite shocking,” said Brown, owner of Nightingale Preschool and Junior Kindergarten Ltd. “I had anticipated with Omicron a child would get sick, but I hadn’t anticipated having no support.”
She called 811, then her licensing officer with Island Health, who said to call 811. “Then I called the COVID hotline, and, then I called the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.”
Eventually she was directed to online information she said was outdated and not in line with the new realities of Omicron.
“I spent my whole weekend trying to decipher what to do,” she said.
Brown shut down the preschool out of an abundance of caution, based on recent guidelines that vaccinated people must isolate a minimum of five days until symptoms clear up and then wear a mask for another five days, while unvaccinated people must isolate at least 10 days. There is no approved COVID vaccine for children under age five.
The Nightingale preschool — in which three teachers oversee 57 kids — reopens Monday.
While K-12 schools were given a week to plan for reopening after the holiday break, with direction from the provincial health officer and education minister, preschools and daycares were left to navigate the implications of the Omicron variant on their own, Brown said.
“I think that’s what I find so bizarre, is all the focus has been on the schools with no particular policies or help or hotline number you can call from a childcare setting — like what do I do if a child has COVID in this Omicron situation?” she said.
Brown said other daycares are asking for her policy: “Clearly there is much confusion about how best to support our unvaccinated children, isolation time frames around children, contact tracing and safely coming back into centres,” she said. “The questions are endless.”
Meagan Brame, director of Saxe Point Day Care in Esquimalt, said daycares like hers, running five days a week, cater to children who are unvaccinated and whose nature is to touch everything and play in close proximity. “They’re kids — they lick each other,” she quipped.
Moreover, young children often have sniffles and when they get sick, they don’t often slow down until they’re really sick, she said.
“It used to be that, you know, Island Health would tell you what to do, but nobody tells you what to do anymore,” said Brame. “So you kind of have to guess. We have to think, OK, who was here two days prior [to a child becoming ill]?” Operators say they must contact those who may have been exposed and ask them to isolate.
The high number of daily cases of COVID-19 driven by the Omicron variant has meant the province’s PCR testing capacity of 20,000 a day has been overwhelmed. Accessing a test may take up to three days. As well, the kind of contact tracing done in previous waves through health authorities is no longer possible.
So Brame also developed her own policies — the 16 children at her daycare, age three to five, wear masks. Daycare providers have different views on this but she said the kids have adapted well. And Brame asks parents to check symptoms the night before.
But if a child tests positive for COVID, Brame wants specific direction. “What does that mean for the centre? Don’t leave it up to us to guess. Say: ‘you close for 10 days, or you don’t but you monitor everyone else for the next 14 days.’ They can’t leave us as the bad guy — they need to give us specific directions.”
When daycares close, parents, including essential workers, can’t go to work, said Brame. And if the daycares have to refund monthly fees too often, “centres are going to close permanently because they’re broke,” said Brame.
“We get their jobs are super hard,” said Brame, who is also an Esquimalt councillor. “All we want as providers is to do the best we can for the families, children and staff, and so we need just a little bit more concreteness.”
The operators say they want examples of what the guidelines look like in daycare scenarios.
The Early Childhood Educators of B.C. wrote to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry saying there’s been a blatant disregard for the early learning and childcare sector.
“Changes to the K-12 education system need to be made in consultation with the child care sector so that we are equally able to navigate the potential risks and pressures this creates for centers and educators,” wrote executive director Emily Gawlick.
The educators also want to be supplied with rapid antigen tests and greater access to PCR testing, personal protective equipment including N95 masks, and priority access to COVID-19 vaccination boosters, for those who want them.