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Joe Cressy, a Toronto city councillor and chair of the Toronto Board of Health, said "our society cannot function, our hospitals cannot operate, our firefighters cannot respond to calls if there is not accessible and available child care for them.”Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Gilda Maciejewski has had to take time off work this week, even though she would much rather be doing her job as a clinic nurse at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto.

But with her two-year-old son having to isolate because of a COVID-19 case in his daycare, Ms. Maciejewski had no other choice but to stay home and look after him.

“I feel so guilty. I must have apologized to my colleagues, my friends, my boss a hundred times asking for this time off because, you know, they’re struggling,” she said.

With the Omicron variant ripping through the province and schools closed for in-person learning, many health care workers in Ontario are having to isolate at home with their kids or scramble to find child care, exacerbating the strain on the health care system. Hundreds of emergency child-care centres opened across the province this week to accommodate essential workers, and the demand has never been higher during the pandemic. It is proof, advocates say, that we need to consider child care an essential service.

“Our society cannot function, our hospitals cannot operate, our firefighters cannot respond to calls if there is not accessible and available child care for them,” said Joe Cressy, a Toronto city councillor and chair of the Toronto Board of Health.

The city has opened emergency child care for front-line and essential workers three times during the pandemic.

This week, more than 40 emergency child-care centres for kids ages 4 to 12 are operating across the city. The centres will operate until in-person learning resumes, although if the province deems them necessary even after schools open they will continue to run, Mr. Cressy said. Registration for the nearly 6,000 spots opened Friday; by Monday only a few remained, he added.

During this Omicron wave, in which staffing shortages threaten to reach crisis levels, ensuring the continuity of services is vital, Mr. Cressy said. “Every nurse or firefighter or paramedic who has to stay home to care for their child is one less essential health care worker who we need in our hospitals and our streets.”

Staffing shortages due to a lack of child care can have a ripple effect across the health care system, said Gillian Howard, a spokesperson for the University Health Network in Toronto.

“Many people working in health care have young children, and if they are in clinical roles they can’t work from home as they are caring for patients. This affects all who work with patients – physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, perfusionists, social workers,” she said in an e-mail. “When daycares have children who become symptomatic – whether with a cold, the COVID virus or another respiratory illness, parents need to stay home with their children until the daycare will accept them back or the daycare facility they normally use reopens.”

The YMCA in Ontario is currently operating more than 100 emergency child-care centres for health care workers throughout the province, including nearly 50 in Toronto.

“This is the fourth time throughout this pandemic that we have opened emergency child care,” said Linda Cottes, senior vice-president of child and family development at the YMCA of Greater Toronto. “This has been the highest demand.”

Scrambling to find child care puts more pressure on many health care workers who may already be nearing their breaking point, said Dr. Doris Grinspun, chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, which represents registered nurses, nurse practitioners and nursing students.

“It puts an enormous amount of stress on top of the stress that they are already experiencing. If you are a parent and you cannot find child care, your kids come first.”

Ms. Maciejewski said she feels the strain of having to ask for time off when the hospital is already short-staffed, even though her boss has been understanding of her situation. There is also the stress of her patients not seeing her and having to catch up on her work when she returns.

“There’s a break in the continuity of care,” she said.

The demand for child care to meet the needs of health care and other front-line workers “demonstrates that child care itself is an essential service,” Mr. Cressy said.

Ms. Maciejewski knows several people who have left their jobs permanently during the pandemic in order to care for their children.

It’s an option she and her husband want to avoid at all costs.

“We love our jobs. We’ve worked hard for our jobs. I understand our kids always come first, and we have hope that the pandemic will end. And then it’s like, okay, where did our careers go? We don’t want to say goodbye to them.”

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