Children observe physical distancing in a handout photo from BrightPath Kids daycare. Lining floors with small blue footprint decals, sectioning out table-top areas with coloured tape, or installing personalized shelves with toys specific to each child.Daycare centres are reopening after months of shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they’re trying to find creative ways to help children better understand physical distancing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-BrightPath Kids

Daycares find unique ways to teach physical distancing to young kids

B.C. says centres must have the physical space to support distancing, and encourages outdoor play when appropriate

Daycare centres are reopening after months of shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they’re trying to find creative ways to help children better understand physical distancing.

Those efforts include lining floors with small blue footprint decals, sectioning out table-top areas with coloured tape, or installing personalized shelves with toys specific to each child.

While other safety measures are also in play — screening children for COVID symptoms daily and increasing sanitization of high-touch surfaces, for instance — experts in child care say it’s not always easy to keep young children apart.

And ensuring the emotional well-being of kids who have been missing daycare since March shouldn’t be ignored.

“There’s going to be emotional challenges probably, when children return,” said Samaya Khattak, the vice president of education and quality assurance at BrightPath, a child-care organization with locations in B.C., Alberta and Ontario.

“We’ve had to adapt a lot of training with the teachers to make sure that they understand how to provide those lessons to children in a very emotionally sensitive way.”

Daycares across the country are operating on limited attendance in an effort to help with physical distancing. Ontario requires cohorts of no more than 10 students and teachers to a room, with no mingling with other cohorts.

B.C. says centres must have the physical space to support distancing, and encourages outdoor play when appropriate. Quebec, meanwhile, originally outlined physical distancing rules for its daycares but dropped those requirements last week in cases of 10 or fewer kids.

BrightPath uses footprint decals to highlighting where children should line up, and hula hoops and pool noodles show safe spacing during play time.

Other daycares are trying similar approaches.

Chances child-care centres in Prince Edward Island are abiding by precautions like cohort limits for kids and staff at their 14 provincial locations, and a decrease in enrolment has made spacing easier. Sanitization is thorough, but individualized shelving, stocked with toys specific to each child’s interests, has helped decrease the sharing of objects.

But Dawn MacLeod, co-ordinator of Chances’ Early Programs, says safety is “emotional as well as physical.”

So being able to comfort a crying toddler with a hug — even if it means facing the child’s head in the other direction — is still important.

“We have to be careful when creating these physically safe environments that we’re not creating emotionally unsafe environments,” she said. “We’re focusing on the relationship, the extra communication — making it fun for children to wash their hands, making it fun for them to be back.

“The message has been so strong to stay away, so creating this safe emotional place for them … is the best thing that we can do right now to ease the tension in our children.”

Chances reopened some of its programs May 25, starting with a strict ratio of four kids to one teacher in each room. The ratios have since expanded but precautions are still in place, even in a province that has recorded just 27 confirmed COVID cases — all now listed as recovered.

Ontario, meanwhile, has had a much different COVID experience with nearly 34,000 positive tests and more than 2,000 cases still listed as active as of Tuesday.

Many of the province’s child-care centres are choosing to keep their doors closed, even after Premier Doug Ford announced on June 9 that daycares would be allowed to reopen three days later.

Amy O’Neil, the director of Treetop Children’s Centre in Toronto, is holding off on opening her facility, which ordinarily cares for 155 children. That number would need to be scaled back to 24 under the new Ontario guidelines.

“There’s a whole range of things that need to be done (before re-opening),” she said.

“We’re going to have additional staffing costs for cleaning and screening, we’re going to need additional costs for personal protective equipment. We’ll have to purchase toys and equipment individually for each child because they won’t be shared amongst the children.”

BrightPath opened the majority of its Ontario locations soon after Ford’s announcement. Khattak said the staggered openings across the country allowed them to prepare for Ontario’s reopening phase.

“Our stance has been to take the highest levels of guidelines that were provided and go above and beyond,” she said. “So if there was a stricter measure in a province, we’ve adopted that as an organizational approach.”

British Columbia, which has reported less than 3,000 COVID cases since March, did not mandate the shutdown of its daycare centres throughout the pandemic.

Still, some chose to shutter their doors, including Sunset Daycare in Vancouver, which closed in April before reopening earlier this month with only eight children — or one-third of its capacity — and with reduced hours to ensure proper cleaning of high-touch surfaces.

Sunset uses coloured tape on tables with toys set up on each end, to give kids a personally designated space. Play time is also moved outdoors whenever weather permits.

But while distance is encouraged, especially indoors, senior supervisor Kirsten Ginter says there’s an added emphasis on hand-washing after play.

“We want them to have that distance, but we also don’t want them to all of a sudden have this complex and stigma around being around each other and playing,” she said. ”And we don’t want their learning suffering because of it.”

Though children generally have less severe COVID outcomes than adults, they may still transmit the virus to others.

Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the University of Toronto, says that can make reopening a daycare risky.

“I think many kids might get infected,” said Banerji. “All it takes is one … then the whole group can get infected. And for most of these kids, it won’t be a big deal. It’ll be maybe a runny nose, maybe nothing … But they’ll bring it home, and maybe the parents get infected.

“And so the concern is really trying to protect the vulnerable people.”

Banerji says it’s likely impossible to prevent a COVID case from spreading in a child-care centre, but one way to mitigate risk might be to keep vulnerable groups away from kids in the initial weeks after re-opening.

She also believes it’s unfair to keep child-care options closed, especially as the rest of society begins to open back up.

“The problem is a lot of people don’t have an income, they’re stuck at home, they’re stressed … and people may need daycares to go to work and have an income and pay their mortgage,” she said. “So I think we don’t have much of a choice now as far as opening up.”

Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press

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