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Dear Lucky Toronto Parents: In a city where finding after-school care is a blood sport, and making it across town during rush hour to spring your kids from the clink in time for 6 p.m. is a death match, the provincial Ministry of Education is here to make your lives even more difficult!
The ministry has (seemingly arbitrarily) started enforcing a shortsighted section of the 2014 Child Care and Early Years Act that limits after-school recreational care for school-aged kids to a maximum of three days a week in any given program, with a pickup time of 5:30 p.m. instead of the current standard practice of 6 p.m. In Toronto, where almost no one is able to get a spot in a licensed daycare, recreational programs have long stepped in to fill the gap. Pretty much every after-school program that isn’t an official day care operates the same way—a walk-safe program from the school to the local karate studio/climbing gym/etc., with parents squealing in at 5:57 p.m. to make pickup. Now the ministry has started seriously curtailing access to these programs, while giving precisely zero Fs to ensure licensed spots are simultaneously made available.
This week in #FML, the Eye of Sauron zeroed in on Sprouts, Growing Bodies and Minds, the after-school program where my six-year-old son learns to tap dance, bake lasagna and build robots. The ministry has given parents a week—a WEEK in a city where pregnant women put their babies on daycare waitlists before their first ultrasound, in a neighbourhood where condo builders have to put up signs warning buyers that there may not be room for more kids in the local schools—to make other arrangements. This is happening at other facilities across the city, too, and I can only assume it’s going to continue to spread. This means that the thousands of school-aged kids whose families in Ontario couldn’t get a spot in a licensed after-care will now have to toggle between several different recreational programs at various locations, creating a confusing patchwork of care—if that care is even available in the first place.
Schools already struggle to keep track of hundreds of kids going off to a myriad of programs at bell time. This change is only going to mean more chaos and more stress for kids—especially for any who have special needs or behavioural issues where inconsistent routines and new situations equal misery and meltdowns. Let’s not even talk about the road rage or risk to employment stability that’ll come with an army of working parents trying to get their kids by 5:30 p.m. Do you finish work at 4:30 p.m.? Nope, me neither.
It’s unclear how forcing families to juggle multiple puzzle pieces of part-time care is better for kids. It’s equally unclear how this mandate serves the government’s stated aim of “working hard to ensure child care in Ontario reflects the realities of our modern world” or their “overarching goal to build a child care and early years system that better supports parents.” Parents in my neighbourhood are simultaneously sending outraged letters to politicians and tripping over each other in a panicked stampede to find somewhere to place our kids by next week, only to hear “Sorry, we’re full,” at other programs. Personally, I’m pondering strapping my son to a pole in front of the Ministry of Education office with a cheese string and a “Please Take Me” sign on his chest.
Much of the discussion around the act when it was first released was about improving conditions in the small percentage of home daycares that were unsafe. This is a laudable goal. You’d be hard pressed to find any parent who thinks that some lady mainlining ciggies in her basement watching TV with nine kids is a great environment. I’m sure the ministry will also argue that this change shouldn’t be news, since it was first unveiled in 2015. Putting aside just for a moment whether the regulations as they relate to school-aged kids are nonsensical (they are), given that there have been no follow-ups, or any sort of recent education campaign from the ministry, the fact that families and facilities have been caught off guard isn’t at all surprising. In the case of Sprouts, they were actually inspected by the September 2017 deadline for compliance with the act and thought they were fine, only to suddenly receive notice last week that they were, not, in fact, fine. Now an entire neighbourhood is scrambling for care when they already had a safe and healthy place for their kids after school. There’s no faster way to force kids into care situations that aren’t ideal than to capriciously eliminate the care they had in the first place.
Surely this can’t be the Ministry of Education’s intention, but it’s the reality of what these guidelines mean for working parents. What were they thinking? And can they think again?
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