This week, with three days notice, the Premier and the Minister of Education announced daycares in Ontario could open on Friday, June 12, with “some restrictions"—even in cities like Toronto, where we remain locked in Phase 1. I’ve been on the board of my kids’ daycare for eight years and I can tell you this announcement was out of the blue, and without any prior notice to daycare directors or staff. In fact, the Ontario Coalition for Better Childcare has called it a “half baked” plan, and I can't think of a more appropriate way to describe it.
Daycare directors and board members like me have been left scrambling, trying to figure out how to adapt our spaces and our programs while fielding a barrage of questions from anxious parents and employees alike. When will we reopen? Will there be a spot for everyone? If not, who gets priority for the limited spots? Do parents need to plead their case and write letters about how badly they need child care? And will the already astronomical fees have to increase in order to keep our daycares financially afloat?
It feels like the Ford government announced “You can open!” with no answers to these questions, and very few practical steps on how to re-open, especially in just three days. The guidelines we received (late on Tuesday night) include very vague and open-to-interpretation wording, like staff should “consider wearing a mask.” There's nothing about where and how to source enough PPE for employees. It suggests we remove toys on which germs could be spread (isn't that every toy?), and to try to avoid shared toys at all. There will be no sensory bins and no singing allowed indoors. Kids and teachers must be separated into cohorts of 10 people (total) per room, or less. Spacing kids apart during meals and naps to maintain physical distancing sounds sensible, but it also just isn’t possible in smaller rooms, and in buildings with only a certain amount of space available. The guidelines also say that daycare workers should wrap babies and toddlers in blankets before picking them up or touching them. What about changing diapers or applying sunscreen?! Facilities must also install Plexiglass barriers at the entryways, at which daily health screenings and temperature checks will be administered, and parents can’t go inside to pick up and drop off their kids.
As you can see, these are huge changes, and they can't happen instantly. In fact, the province has publicly acknowledged that it’s unlikely everyone would be able to do all this and reopen on June 12 anyway. It’s like they just wanted a “good news” soundbite without doing the hard work of creating a meaningful, well-researched plan to safely reopen child care facilities for our children.
Instead, it’s the directors and the volunteer boards who are stuck between a rock and a hard place. We are not medical professionals. We are not policy makers. Just like back in March, when the government initially let us decide whether and when to close, they are downloading the work to ill-equipped volunteer boards and early childhood educators, which feels like an enormous burden to put on a group of people who are not experts in infectious diseases. I love our very qualified, enthusiastic ECEs—they have become like family to us. But they are not trained to manage child care during a pandemic.
This is why we're hoping we’ll get more guidance from our public health officials soon—something Toronto Public Health (which was also, reportedly, caught off guard by the announcement) has promised is coming soon. (TPH has already indicated that it will not green-light daycare reopening here in Toronto on June 12.)
Not only are we making decisions and creating enhanced health and safety policies that are beyond our expertise, but we’re being asked to do it without any financial help to cover all these new costs, at a time when we’re going to have to decrease our enrolment. We’re a not-for-profit centre that runs on a break-even model. Our childcare fees mainly cover staff wages. If we are operating at less than full capacity, we cannot afford to pay our staff (or rather, we cannot afford to rehire them to come back). While operating at a deficit may be manageable in the short-term due to small cash reserves, it is not sustainable. You can’t make something from nothing, and you certainly cannot operate a safe and quality daycare service on a shoestring budget with not enough staff.
And yet, we know that parents depend on us. When we made the tough call to proactively close the daycare, almost three months ago now, we knew it meant putting 44 families in a childcare bind and laying off all our staff with virtually no notice. I felt guilty and worried—for our teachers, for myself and for my three kids, for sure. But what kept me up at night was thinking about the other parents whose jobs didn't allow them to work from home. There are many families at our daycare who cannot return to work without childcare. The longer they have zero access to safe daycare, the longer they cannot work, and that may mean they can’t afford to buy groceries or pay rent. So much is riding on this reopening, yet so much more is riding on it being done right.
My ultimate fear is that this rushed announcement, without funding support or an action plan attached, will lead to the collapse of the daycare sector. We will have fewer daycares that are able to operate, which means fewer choices for parents. And in a city like Toronto, where I joined daycare waiting lists before I even told my own parents that I was pregnant, this will have long-lasting ripple effects through our economy. The government needs to step up and actually do the job that they have claimed to have already done.