With the rollout of Ontario’s full-day Kindergarten program about to hit a critical point this September, licenced child care providers are facing new challenges they say could put local services and programs in jeopardy.
This fall it is expected that half of all four- and five-year-olds in the province will be enrolled in Kindergarten. The program will be fully up and running by 2014.
As those kids leave their child care centres for school, more spaces become available for the many infants and toddlers whose names sit on a waiting list for one of the 985 spaces available throughout Stratford and Perth County.
But the transition to caring for younger kids comes at a cost to daycare and nursery operators. Younger children require more staffing, which means higher operating costs for child care providers, who will be forced to increase fees to cover their expenses unless the province agrees to significantly increase its funding.
According to groups like the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, the province’s child care system is severely underfunded, and requires immediate funding of $287 million.
The cost for child care is around $15,000 a year in Ontario, and the group warns that without a major cash injection, fees will increase by an additional 15 to 30 per cent. It also says child care spaces will close since not all families will be able to afford the fees, leading to longer waiting lists and staff being laid off.
Jean Ann Goll, executive director for Perth Care for Kids, which operates child care centres in Mitchell and Milverton, as well as three nurseries, suggests without additional funding her organization will likely have no choice but to raise fees.
She says the province’s funding model is outdated and does not reflect how full-day Kindergarten will affect the child care system.
She adds the province, which in many cases already subsidizes child care staff wages, must increase that amount to ensure not only fees remain affordable for parents, but that child care providers can offer a competitive wage to prevent early childhood educators (ECE) from leaving the system for schools.
Currently, an ECE in a non-profit child care centre will earn on average $13/hour, whereas a school board will offer anywhere up to $25/hour.
“Our biggest concern right now is sustaining staff,” says Goll. “In rural communities historically it’s difficult to recruit qualified staff to begin with, but now with the additional vacancies for ECEs in the school boards, it is going to be that much more difficult.”
For some child care providers like the Stratford-Perth YMCA, the impact of full-day Kindergarten will be weakened, at least in the beginning, by expanding its before-and-after school programs to four- and five-year-olds.
The YMCA already runs the program for school-aged children in most public schools in Stratford.
“We’re lucky to have had those school-aged programs to help supplement us for a very long time,” says Lori Darling, director of child care for the local YMCA. “We’re able to balance (our budget) because we do have those programs. But I don’t know how long that is going to balance.”
Once the rollout of full-day Kindergarten is complete, Darling says the YMCA, which operates child care centres in Stratford and Shakespeare, will have to consider raising fees.
With ECEs being in such high demand, Darling suggests now would be a good time for the province to consider allowing individuals with different – but equal – qualifications to work with older kids.
“Sometimes when change happens it is a good thing because it makes us aware of what we’ve been living with,” she says. “These regulations haven’t been forced into updates for a long time.”
But without any change, either in provincial policy or to the child care funding model, services might have to be cut.
Darling says the centre the YMCA runs in Shakespeare operates almost entirely with Kindergarten-aged children, and could be forced to close unless a new group of infants and toddlers sign up.
Goll, meanwhile, says Perth Care for Kids might have to restructure its centre in Milverton if it loses any staff.
“That may mean closing down classrooms or program rooms,” she adds.