Childcare educators, mothers felt 'left hanging', undervalued during pandemic
Childcare must be prioritized in future pandemic response plans to address gender inequality, quality of care and burnout, according to a Simon Fraser University researcher who tracked the lived experiences of childcare educators during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new study published in the journal Gender, Work & Organization, led by SFU health sciences research associate Julia Smith, paints a chaotic picture of childcare educators navigating through fear and anxiety, unclear public health directives and feeling undervalued and more at risk compared to other essential workers.
"I don't think that people are really recognizing how much we're putting ourselves at risk," said one childcare educator participating in the study, one of 16 people interviewed during British Columbia's initial lockdown. "We're not even allowed to wear masks, because it could scare the children. So even hospital workers, they're still having protection, but for us in the field, we're very, very exposed."
While the province ordered school closures and advised against all non-essential social contact from March to June 2020, childcare facilities remained open with spots prioritized for children of essential workers.
But the staff running these facilities felt ill-prepared to provide quality childcare while questions about the transmission of COVID-19 were at their highest.
Educators said they often received contradictory public health information from health authorities and various levels of government, and hardly any advice on what to do if children and staff became ill.
"There wasn't a lot of directives," according to one educator. "It was just very vague and you were sort of left hanging."
This, and other factors cited in the study, led to childcare educators—many who hold diplomas in Early Childhood Education—feeling undervalued compared to other essential workers during the lockdown.
Similar grievances were echoed by unpaid childcare providers, predominantly females and mothers who felt obligated to put their careers and personal security aside to provide care to children.
Mothers working from home experienced feelings of guilt and distress while trying to juggle their work and family lives.
The study concludes that B.C., like other jurisdictions in Canada, downloaded care responsibilities on to women without corresponding recognition or support, which could have lasting effects on women's careers and wellbeing, and put the resiliency of the entire childcare system at risk.
The findings indicate that pandemic response, recovery and preparedness efforts that aim to promote gender equality must address all areas of childcare.
"If the wellbeing and working conditions of educators is not prioritized in pandemic recovery efforts, there is a real risk of burnout and decreased quality of childcare," says Smith, co-lead of the Gender and COVID-19 Project.
"For example, further reducing childcare fees would not only improve the accessibility of childcare, but also enable women to rejoin the workforce and ease the financial burden parents are struggling with due to the COVID-19 economic crisis."
Smith has called on Canada to develop a gender-responsive pandemic preparedness plan to mitigate the unequal secondary effects of future pandemic.
In a Policy Options piece published Oct. 27, Smith and co-author Alice Mũrage write that policy measures taken during the pandemic have led to sustained and gendered long-term consequences for millions of Canadians, including loss of employment, increased unpaid care work, deteriorated mental health, and increased cases of gender-based violence.