“We have an extra staff member just to disinfect the toys and blankets”: What it’s like to run a Toronto child-care centre during Covid

By Toronto Life| Photography by Erin Leydon
"We have an extra staff member just to disinfect the toys and blankets": What it's like to run a Toronto child-care centre during Covid

Denise Shepherd is a registered early childhood educator who has been working with the YMCA of Greater Toronto for 13 years. When the YMCA opened emergency child-care centres in April, she was one of the first ECEs to begin working again. As child-care centres across Ontario are now reopening, Toronto Life spoke to Shepherd about how her job has changed since in the past few months.

As told to Andrea Yu

“From a young age, I always enjoyed being around kids. Growing up, I helped my little sister read books. I loved helping small children learn new things and seeing the delight on their faces. And I loved getting to build relationships with them and their parents. In 2007, I started working at a YMCA in Scarborough, and 10 years later moved to a centre in Pickering, which is closer to my home in Ajax. I educate preschool-aged kids, so two-and-a-half to four years old. There are usually 16 children in our classroom, and I co-teach with another educator, so the ratio of educators to children is eight to one. We’ll do arts and crafts; science experiments, like mixing baking soda and vinegar into volcanoes; and math activities, like sorting blocks into different colours and shapes. It’s fun and engaging work. Every day is a new experience.

“The kids are always laughing and giggling. They’re so creative. One time we were talking about penguins and how they lay eggs. The children took large wooden spheres, waddled around and pretended they were penguin parents. During story time, kids will drop by to participate if it interests them, but they can still come and go as they please. On the penguin day, one child wandered off because his egg ‘hatched’ and then came back when he heard something in the story that interested him.

“I started hearing about the coronavirus in early March, but I didn’t think it was a big deal. I figured it would blow over eventually. I never thought about how it would affect my work. The centre was open for March Break but I had planned to take that time off to spend time with my own children, who are 13, 16 and 18. And pretty soon I realized it was going to be more serious than I originally thought. Right before March Break, my supervisor called me to tell me that the YMCA would be would close for the following two weeks, and that was extended indefinitely. I’ve learned not to get anxious at times like this. It doesn’t help me to sit there and panic—I need to be calm. Otherwise I don’t think straight.

“I was on a temporary layoff and applied for E.I., but I wasn’t worried about my finances. I’m a saver. I live within my budget, so when my income went down, my spending went down too. I enjoyed the time at home with my children. I cleaned a lot at first, but you can only clean so much. I also started cooking for fun, teaching my daughter how to make fried bakes: a traditional Guyanese fried flour and saltfish breakfast that my mother and grandmother used to cook. My kids and I love it but I don’t usually have time to make it in the mornings. Now my daughter knows how.

“Still, I missed my work. So when my supervisor emailed me after two weeks to say that the YMCA was opening emergency child-care centres for front-line workers, I was curious. They hosted a virtual Zoom tour of a YMCA child-care centre in Brampton, which was redesigned with pandemic health and safety in mind. They explained that they’d be screening the workers and children daily, and there would be lots of cleaning protocols in place, with fewer toys on the shelves and a designated staff member responsible for all the cleaning. I could see how well everything was set up, and I decided I’d be comfortable doing the work.

“I got placed at an emergency child-care centre at a YMCA in Oshawa, where there would be two educators and only six kids in my classroom—the children of nurses, police officers and personal support workers. My first day back was April 20, and we started work at 5:30 a.m. to accommodate the health care workers’ schedules. Every day, when I arrive, my supervisor takes my temperature while wearing gloves, a mask and gown. She asks me if I’m experiencing any symptoms of Covid. Then I wipe down my personal belongings with a Lysol wipe, although I try to limit what I bring to work.

“The children arrive one at a time, and my supervisor takes their temperature, then disinfects their bags with a Lysol wipe and escorts them to their classrooms. This way, teachers don’t have any physical contact with the parents. Once they arrive to the classroom, the children change into their indoor shoes, and we unpack their diapers, wipes and water bottles. We now leave every other cubby empty so that there is more space between the children and their belongings.


“Then they wash their hands. We’re constantly washing our hands throughout the day. There are child-size sinks in every classroom. Thankfully, the kids like it. There’s water, soap and bubbles involved, so they’re all for it. We have removed a lot of toys from the classroom—especially anything fabric or plush like stuffed animals, puppets and dolls’ clothes, because they’re hard to keep clean. After a child is finished playing with a toy, we put it in a disinfecting bin that goes off to a separate room to be sanitized. Tables that used to seat six children now seat just two at opposite ends. Instead of using a communal tray with arts and crafts supplies, everybody gets their own craft bag, their own markers, their own paper. Meals and snacks used to be self-serve and family-style, but now everything comes individually wrapped.

“We still have to hug and pick up younger children to comfort them, so we keep blankets on our shoulders to maintain a barrier between us and them. Every time I pick up or hug a kid with the blanket, it gets put in a bin to be washed. So we go through a good amount of blankets every day.

“It’s a lot quieter with fewer kids in the classroom. But they’re still themselves. They’re taking full advantage of all the extra space they have. If they get too close to each other, we remind them of physical distancing and redirect them with a new activity. The kids are pretty good at complying with distancing. They’re getting lots of reminders from their parents at home too.

“I can tell that the children have been hearing about Covid. One day, I saw two girls holding small plastic batons with ribbons at the ends, usually used for dancing. They were speaking very seriously to each other, so I went over to ask what they were doing. They could see their reflections in a window and they were pretending to do a newscast, using the batons as microphones. They said, ‘Oh, we have Covid and you have to wash your hands and wash off all the germs.’ When the ‘camera’ started rolling again I jumped behind them and said, ‘Hi Mom! Hi Mom!' to the imaginary camera. They explained that I couldn’t do that on a newscast.

“I’m not worried about getting sick. There are so many health and safety regulations in place, and there haven’t been any cases of Covid at the Oshawa centre yet. The only time I’ve ever felt scared is when the government mandated that staff at emergency child-care centres get tested for Covid-19. The test was done outside of the building. I was dreading it. After they put the swab up one nostril, I thought we were done—but then they swabbed the other nostril. It was extremely uncomfortable.

“People still cough and sneeze. Children and staff still have seasonal allergies and colds. When they get sick, my supervisor contacts public health; some staff and children have been referred for testing as a precaution. While feeling sick, they can’t come to the centre until public health clears them. Thankfully there haven’t been any positive cases.

“I was surprised to hear last week that child-care centres were being allowed to open with just three days notice. But June 12 was the earliest a child-care centre could reopen, not the day it had to reopen. The YMCA opened just 14 out of 300 locations as emergency child-care centre in April and May, and I know it’ll take some time before we open more. I know the Y is following public health guidelines. The centres that do open won’t operate at full capacity, and they’ll have a version of the rigorous safety precautions we put in place.

“I feel like a pioneer working in this new environment for the first time. It takes some getting used to, but I’m flexible. We’re still educators at the end of the day. The show must go on.”


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