Just over 50 per cent of Ontario daycares have reopened as school nears


September is here, but only just over half of Ontario's 5,523 child care centres have reopened, with one advocate linking the issue to staffing problems and the overall back-to-school plan by the provincial government. 

As of last Thursday, 2,960 provincial centres have reopened, according to the latest figures provided by the Ministry of Education. 

NEWSTALK1010 reported three weeks ago the number was just under 2,700, up from 2,066 from July 14th.

Daycares were first allowed to reopen starting June 12th. 

Carolyn Ferns, policy coordinator with the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, said one of the major problems is being unable to staff programs adequately. 

"They've said 'well I would open if I could, but I actually cannot hire the staff who were laid off during the closure period and now trying to staff up again to be able to reopen is proving to be very difficult," she said. "We're asking people to go back to jobs on a very low wage, which now have increased risk and responsibility and so something has to give and so we need to ensure that we have programs that both parents and educators feel confident are safe." 

She also says a lack of financial support through much of the summer could have irreversible consequences. 

But while less than 1,000 centres have reopened in the last month and a half, it's possible the openings could increase quickly for several reasons. 

First, the current caps of 15-person cohorts in daycares have lifted effective today, which the provincial government said last month would help meet its goal of 100 per cent pre-pandemic capacity for the start of the school year. 

Also, many daycares rely on providing before-and-after school care. 

"They may be opening in the next few weeks, so that could be part of what we're seeing, so I don't want to discount that, that we could see more centres opening in the next little while," she said. 

But even given those factors, Ferns did think the pace would've increased much more in the lead-up to September and it could be a signal of more permanent closures.

"Some of those centres that are still closed, they may not be reopening at all and we've heard now about two community college child care programs on campuses that have closed permanently, we know that there's child care in the Barrie area that operated four child care centres that they've just closed their child care programs entirely," she said. 

There's also only so many centres directly connected to schools. 

For example, in the Toronto District School Board, there are just over 350 schools with Before and After School Program comprised of "licensed child care, authorized recreation and TDSB directly operated Extended Day Programs." 

NDP Early Learning and Child Care Critic Doly Begum said ahead of the cohort caps lifting, the PC government could've provided funding in the summer. 

"They could've been funding the vacancies, which would've helped them keep up with the day-to-day operations," she said, adding it's been more of a struggle for smaller daycare operators to deal with the pandemic. 

"We've got some bigger-scale places, as well as some smaller ones, some of them are municipal, so it depends on how much capacity they have, so you're really destroying the little guys here and that means we're losing spaces," she said. 

Some new funding did come into Ontario's child care sector last month, about $235 million from the new agreement between the provinces and the federal government. 

The government said the money would be used to provide PPE, hire new employees, cleaning and offset revenue losses. 

“It can be used … to make up those dollars, to really help those operators get through the worst of it," Education Minister Stephen Lecce said August 7th. 

Ferns fears it may be too late even before the pandemic, her organization estimates the total capacity in the province only serves about 30 per cent of children in Ontario that could be in a child care program. 

"There's so many unknowns, we don't know how many child care centres are planning to reopen in the next few weeks and we don't know how many have closed permanently," she said. "So I think the provincial government put out a very weak plan for child care and it's starting to show." 

With files from the Canadian Press