132 Ontario child care centres closed since March

Empty or closed daycare centre

Since March when shutdowns hit Ontario, 132 child care centres have permanently closed and of those, 30 cited COVID-19 as the main reason why, according to Education Minister Stephen Lecce. 

But child care advocates fear concerns over enrollment levels could lead to more shutting their doors, especially with closures outpacing new openings in the last seven months.

NEWSTALK1010 has been tracking the re-opening of child care centres throughout the pandemic and since just over 50 per cent of the province’s 5,527 centres were open at the start of September, 5,369 are back open. 

“I appreciate that COVID has placed a great challenge and burden on our operators and the disruption in the economy is significant, yet even still 95 per cent are open,” Lecce said, regarding the rate at which the reopening has gone. 

But the long-term concern now that most have reopened says Carolyn Ferns, policy coordinator with the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, is sustainability. 

“The province hasn’t told us exactly what the average enrollment is in child care,” she said. “We had a figure from the City of Toronto last month that said the average in Toronto is only 37 per cent, that spaces are filled, so those centres might be open, but they are trying to deal with a very difficult situation.”

Andrea Hannen, executive director with the Association of Daycare Operators of Ontario, shares the worry. 

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we see another wave of closures, I get calls every day from centre owner-operators saying ‘I’m barely hanging on,’” she said. 

It’s not simply the lower enrollment, but the compounding of additional costs, such as PPE and cleaning. 

Openings and closures happen every year and over the last decade, the province has seen an annual net increase of 76 centres per year over the last 10 years.

But it’s important to note these numbers are reported on an annual basis ending in March. 

While 132 have closed since March, the ministry of education says 71 new openings have been approved and issued, reversing at least in the short term, the longtime trend of more openings than closures.

“So we actually still have another few months to go,” Ferns said. “I worry that we’re going to really have more closures than normal.”

Lecce said it’s a concern he’s thinking about as well. 

“It’s something that we’re aware of, we understand that capacity is in part, demand driven, obviously if there are fewer parents requiring child care because they’re working from home or they’ve made different arrangements, that will have an impact on the sector for sure, and of course, on our side, the ratios where we permit a certain of children to staff and capacities within those centres,” he said. “We’re looking at additional ways to help the sector reduce the red tape burden and just help, allow them to focus on care right now and not the administrative red tape that may cost them money that they just don’t have.” 

Some of those measures have included proposed changes in October to the Child Care and Early Years Act. 

They include combining infants and toddlers to one group, while children aged 24 to 30 months old would be grouped with children up to five years old, also bumping their 1-5 staff ratio to 1-8. Another idea is removing the requirement that staff working with children in kindergarten be certified by the College of Early Educators, among other staffing qualification changes. 

Ferns says it’s entirely the wrong time for contemplating those types of changes and as far as 30 centres attributing COVID-19 as the specific reason for closure, she suspects it’s likely an underlying reason for many others. 

“Any financial hit that a centre is experiencing right now due to low enrollment, I think we can say is related to the financial situation that we’re in right now because of the pandemic,” she said. 

Hannen thinks a major part of the solution is with the Act, but didn’t mention the types of changes the government is proposing. 

Instead she thinks it needs an overhaul of how funding flows from the province to municipalities, arguing there’s very little oversight in the money making its way into their respective child care sectors. 

“That falls squarely on this crazy system that the province of Ontario has,” she said, adding sustainability funding for the sector should’ve come much sooner in the pandemic. “It (funding) is funnelled through 47 different municipalities and every municipality is allowed to set its own rules, set its reporting requirements and there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, oversight about how that money gets out to centres.”

“So perfect storm and that’s what’s happening right now.”

UPDATE: A previous version of this story said the number of closures was 125 since March. The Ministry of Education has provided an update that the number is 132.