Recently, the Ontario government announced its plan to reopen child care centres across the province. Unfortunately, this plan is not without flaws. The proposed strategy, which was given to child care centres only three days in advance of reopening, features 20 pages of new protocols and safety procedures, such as fewer children, no visitors and heightened cleaning measures. This will undoubtedly increase operating costs, yet the government has offered no extra funding. This does not serve the needs of parents nor does it support child care providers. Child care advocates have described it as “half-baked, at best” and “grossly misinformed”. It’s a plan that doesn’t prioritize families—a critique that often surrounds the Ford government’s policies. As Carolyn Ferns of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care states, “The implementation of the government reopening of child care guidelines is impossible without proper support.”
There is no doubt that this pandemic has hit communities who are socially and economically disadvantaged the hardest, and this is especially true for women. According to Statistics Canada, over 1.5 million women lost their jobs in March and April. As the economy reopens, women will struggle to regain their pandemic job losses. According to Heather Scoffield, an economist columnist at The Star, “men have regained about 15 per cent of their pandemic losses; women, about five per cent”. For mothers with preschool age children, employment levels rose just two per cent.
We can’t reopen the economy without having a clear plan to support families in post-pandemic recovery. Canadian women contribute about 40 per cent of household income. Therefore, there can be “no recovery without a she-covery,” and there can be no she-covery without child care. In one of Prime Minister Trudeau’s daily COVID-19 updates, he acknowledged that “this is one of the first recessions we’ve ever seen that has so hard hit vulnerable workers in the service sector, particularly women, new Canadians and young people.”
The child care system in Ontario is broken and chronically underfunded. To make things worse, the sector has been recently suffering funding cuts introduced by the Ford government. Needless to mention that Ontarians pay the highest child care fees in the country, and Torontonians pay the highest infant care fees, estimated at an astounding $1,685 per month. We shouldn’t lose sight of the cracks and gaping holes in the system as we move forward with plans to reopen. The government’s rushed plan will push vulnerable women and working moms further into precarity.
Prime Minister Trudeau acknowledged that “the need for child care has never been made clearer”. Clearly, stating the obvious doesn’t help the situation here. What families need is an action plan in place to support them, their children, early childhood educators and child care providers. A national child care strategy is indeed warranted.
Child care operators are scrambling to meet the new safety guidelines announced by the government, which come with no promises of funding to support increased operational costs (such as the need for extra staffing, personal protective equipment, staff training and cleaning supplies). Advocates and operators expressed their concerns about this plan. One of these concerns is the government’s decision to reopen without giving adequate notice to centres, and with a lack of consultations with experts. Furthermore, the government didn’t address the retroactive funding decision that has left child care organizations across the province in a deficit position. Instead, the Ford government’s plan has left child care operators hanging, with many unanswered questions.
Some child care centres refuse to reopen until the province meets their funding conditions. Sheila Olan-Maclean, CEO of Compass Early Learning & Care and President of the Board of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care indicated that her organization is almost $ 600,000 in deficit due to subsidizing their employee wages. She expressed concerns about being able to pay her staff a decent wage and questioned how child care centres are supposed to operate under the new guidelines. The ramifications of this plan could be equally devastating as almost 56,000 children in Toronto could be without daycare under this plan.
Former Premier Kathleen Wynne rightly called the plan an “unrealistic, ill-considered instruction that is bound to fail”. On top of this, the government has made clear that stiff fines have been put in place if child care centres do not comply with the reopening guidelines.
We join many parents in voicing concerns about the reopening plan, including the fact that potential increases in child care costs will fall on the shoulders of parents. Although Minister Lecce has promised to avoid increased fees, advocates argue that with no increase or government financial support, many child care centres will go bankrupt and be forced to shut down.
Families are already struggling financially under COVID-19, as the old system does not work with or for us. It is high time that the needs of all families are taken into account as Ontario phases out strict public health measures. Now is the time to finally establish a national affordable and accessible child care system.
The Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care and the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Ontario published an eye-opening report about a child care plan for Ontario. The report included 27 detailed recommendations for safe and healthy reopening of child care centres, including providing a minimum of three weeks’ notice prior to opening. Sadly, advocates say that the Ontario government didn’t consider most of these recommendations. Last week over 1500 individuals participated in a #FordFailsFamilies digital rally. More than 22,000 people signed an open letter to Ford and Lecce urging them to support and fund a safe child care reopening and recovery plan. Advocates are also calling for significant emergency funding about triple the government’s current child care budget to help centres safely reopen.
As two immigrant women, we have never reconciled with its unbearable costs. Many families simply cannot afford the rising costs and this is especially true for low-income families and newly arrived immigrants. If we want a just and fair recovery that acknowledges the gendered impact of this pandemic, then politicians need to listen to our needs and, once and for all, put families first.
—Sara Asalya and Souzan Michael Galway