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Region looking to increase accessibility of daycare services

[File Photo]

Recognizing the importance of childcare to the local economy, the Region of Waterloo is developing a new five-year plan to make daycare more accessible and affordable.

As the overseer of childcare services within its boundaries, the regional government is also aware that the industry has an ongoing labour shortage that’s been aggravated by the pandemic.

The plan is created every five years as part of guidance and funding from the province of Ontario to create an overview of what the childcare system looks like in Waterloo Region.

“The system plan is a multi-year plan that is designed to support a vibrant, inclusive and high-quality early years and childcare system. The plan, prepared by children’s services, is based on research and engagement from our community,” said Chair Karen Redman in a briefing last week.

“We know that childcare is an essential part of our community and our economy. The early years and child care system can have significant impacts on children’s development and long term outcomes. As our community continues to grow, we must continue to address existing barriers as well as quality of care that was made worse during the pandemic,” added Woolwich Mayor Sandy Shantz.

The seven key goals of the new plan include advocating for new investments, addressing systemic inequities, growing and sustaining the system, evaluating outcomes of investments, enhancing stakeholder engagement, supporting continuous quality improvement, and improving service experiences.

“The purpose is to guide us in working together. There’s lots of data about what is going on currently in the childcare system – it allows us to identify what our priorities are going forward and what will our goals be into the next five years,” said Barbara Cardow, the region’s director of children’s services, in a later interview.

“The goals are to create a child care system, an earlier system that is accessible and affordable and equitable and high quality – a system that every family can access, with high-quality childcare and EarlyON services. We know from our research that it currently is not affordable for every family. It’s currently not accessible for a number of families because they can’t get spaces. We know that people who are Black, Indigenous, racialized, have children with special needs, have parents who are LGBTQ2+, don’t have the same kind of access or the same experiences that other families might have. We know we have a ways to go on making sure that regardless of somebody’s socioeconomic status, that they can access space in the same way that other families can in the community.” 

Lack of childcare spaces in the region has been the top of many resident’s minds since the region closed the five centres it owned. The plan notes the need for more childcare spaces, but Cardow says the plan doesn’t help address how to solve that. The federal $10 a day childcare plan, if adopted by the province of Ontario, would help ease the cost concerns.

“The federal plan will help to address affordability issues because we are much more limited on what we can do around affordability without extra funding, as well as access – we don’t have enough spaces in the system currently.

“We are counting on the federal plan helping us to be able to increase the number of spaces and to make childcare more affordable. Really, we can’t address that sufficiently without additional funding. There has to be target funding to address those areas.”

The union that represents some regional workers, including those who were impacted by the closure of the region-owned facilities, notes childcare workers are under a tremendous amount of stress due to the pandemic.

Noelle Fletcher, president of CUPE Local 1883, adds there’s an increasing shortage of spaces in the region.

“The childcares have been dealing with staff shortages, no access to PCR testing, very limited supply to N95 masks and erosion of reporting requirements leading to serious safety concerns among workers, childcare operators and parents. They’re dealing with opening and closing based on outbreaks: people getting sick and having to quarantine. They’re just as stressed out if not more than other people. But not a lot of attention has gone to what the childcare system is going through,” said Fletcher.

The pandemic has put a large strain on the childcare system, as many operators have had to learn new health and safety rules while dealing with a staffing shortage. Many children in their care are also unable to get vaccinated as they are under five years of age.

“It’s been, pretty frankly, an exhausting year or two years for educators and operators who have really had to change everything about how they operate and to meet the necessary health and safety requirements. So that has had a significant impact both on the energy because it’s taken a lot of energy to adjust and the rules have changed a lot over the last two years,” said Cardow.

“Also, families are under a lot of stress. Educators are playing a much stronger role in supporting families who are under stress, which is stressful in itself. It costs a lot more to operate a childcare program in a pandemic because of the costs associated with needing extra staffing so that you can maintain groups in their cohorts or continue to screen and purchase the equipment that you need. It has cost operators more than normal to operate a childcare program,” she added, noting “early childhood educators tend to be quite underpaid for the work that they do.”

Another reason for the labour shortage in childcare in the region is the inability to get enough qualified staff to operate the centres.

“In addition to the higher cost, childcare programs are reporting that they are not able to get enough qualified staff sometimes to operate because people are just either leaving the field or they’re just not entering the field to work in childcare at the same rate that they used to,” Cardow explained.

“We have received funding from the federal government to support that workforce strategy. We are working together with the childcare community to try to find new and different ways to attract and, more importantly, retain early childhood educators in the field by providing the kinds of supports and recognition that they need.”

The plan is currently working its way to regional council by month’s end. 

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