BARRIE, ONT. -- Childcare centres in Barrie have noticed a significant drop in attendance compared to this time last year.

As the economy reopens and with it, more than 50,000 students return to schools across Simcoe Muskoka, childcare centres are now navigating uncharted territory with new safety guidelines for staff members coming into effect.

“I’ve never really felt as much anxiety as I have since March, and I’ve been doing this for 35 years,” said Jackie Dubeau outside her Mapleview Drive West Barrie childcare location, Open Arms Early Childhood Centre.

“Today, my thought was, oh boy, am I going to have staff leave because they’re realizing they have to wear this every single day?”

Dubeau says the province has not been very clear or consistent in its directives for childcare providers when it comes to cohorts and the grouping of children from multiple schools, school boards and learning plans. She says schools have received much more specific recommendations and protocols while childcare centres have been largely ignored. Dubeau took it upon herself to deal with concerns regarding physical distancing and safety measures.

“So we’ve looked at okay space, and this is one school, this is another school, and this is a bus group. And again, that affects the amount of children I can bring in,” Dubeau explains.

Dubeau and her 16 staff members wore masks, face shields and goggles Tuesday morning for the first time under the province’s new childcare guidelines, which required full protective gear while caring for children, even when outside.

Caring for 35 children this week and about 60 next week, Dubeau says she is running at roughly half her capacity. She says she understands parents’ concerns and trepidation.

“Every morning, it’s a question of what’s today going to look like. You’re hearing this, you’re hearing cases are going up,” says Dubeau; who has run Open Arms for 15 years in Barrie.

The changes come into effect as the region’s top doctor reports, what he calls, a significant increase in infections locally.

“We had 22 cases, the week before that we had 11 cases, the week before that we had four cases,” says Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Charles Gardner.

Dr. Gardner expresses concerns over family clusters of positive cases of the virus and warned of the increased risk of failing to contain social bubbles to 10 people or fewer.

Still, some childcare providers, including staff at the Barrie YMCA, say the measures in place work in protecting children and their families.

“Pretty strict screening guidelines if you’re showing any symptoms. Children are to stay home,” says Brian Shelley, the Y’s vice president in Simcoe Muskoka.

Shelley says the need for childcare has been increasing as the school year nears and parents and families return to the workplace.

“We’ve been open since May now with our emergency childcare centres and other childcare centres since July. We’ve had no outbreaks within our centres,” said Shelley.