Pandemic restrictions have lasting effects on childcare workers in BC

Dr. Julia Smith discusses research and the need to recognize the work of childcare workers

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Box of crayon in foreground, a child in the background
PHOTO: Aaron Burden / Unsplash

By: Karissa Ketter, News Writer

SFU health sciences research associate Dr. Julia Smith recently published her findings on how social and governmental responses to the pandemic have overlooked childcare workers. In an interview with The Peak, Smith discussed her findings. 

Smith’s research looks at the initial school closures in BC from March to June 2020. She conducted interviews within the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health authorities with 16 female participants — eight childcare educators and eight mothers who used paid childcare. 

“What I heard very clearly from both [groups] was a real lack of recognition and support. Childcare workers felt unrecognized as essential workers,” said Smith. 

In 2020, when the initial restrictions and lockdowns were being put in place, “a coalition of early childhood educators requested that daycare be closed temporarily so they could get the right policies and programs in place to ensure the safety of children. And that request was denied,” said Smith.

Throughout the interviews, Smith noted, childcare workers expressed BC’s COVID-19 response would not have been possible without them, yet they weren’t given the same support from the government or the public. 

At the beginning of the pandemic public displays of appreciation for other essential workers were prominent as people took to the streets to clap them on, “but never mentioned childcare workers and they’re taking care of the children of the health care workers.” 

Smith said doctors and nurses couldn’t go to work if it weren’t for their access to early childcare workers. “I think the pandemic has really shown us how essential that work is, because none of us can do our job without it.

“Childcare has historically been neglected in terms of investments and development. And partly because it is a feminized profession that is seen as requiring few skills, and easy to do,” said Smith. “Because women do it, we do not value it as a profession.”

Childcare workers told Smith stories of their lack of access to personal protective equipment such as masks and other health necessities such as toilet paper in their environments. She also noted the importance of these things when dealing with children who are “not known for being super hygienic. Little kids [ . . . ] run around, they touch everything, and they want to be cuddled.”

The long term consequences of this pandemic response has severe implications for the health and well-being of childcare workers, according to Smith. She found childcare workers have lasting effects of trauma, such as high levels of stress and extreme anxiety. Smith said some women are not able to relax anymore and find themselves crying for no apparent reason. 

Their chronic mental health conditions are attributed to the extreme stress they have been under for over a year and a half, according to Smith.

Smith is calling on the government for more action. “We now have learned from COVID-19 we need to develop pandemic preparedness and response plans that include childcare so that when there’s a pandemic, childcare educators aren’t scrambling to come up with their own policies and procedures. They’re not public health specialists, they shouldn’t have to figure out the best way to prevent infection. There should be guidelines on that.”

For more information on the effects of the pandemic, Smith’s study can be found online.