Finding good quality and affordable daycare through school can be more difficult than getting the kids dressed, fed and out the door for school in a snowstorm. And, in Ontario, it’s about to get even harder.
To find a spot for my daughter Sophie before she started junior kindergarten in 2015, I basically stalked the coordinator of the before- and after-school care program in her school. It was run by a well-known, licensed community resource, was offered right in the building (in her classroom, even) so there was no travel required, and the cost wasn’t too prohibitive. But I knew we couldn’t bank on getting in, however, so I researched any and every possibility in a 20-km radius of my home.
We were incredibly lucky and nabbed the last spot (!) for that school year, but if Soph had been starting school this September, most of the fallback options I’d found would be obsolete—or illegal. As part of the rollout of the Child Care and Early Years Act, September 1 marks the beginning of new before- and after-school regulations stipulated by the province: Children under the age of 6 needing extended daycare must be registered in a school board-run extended day program, or in a licensed child care centre. This means parents of four- and five-year-olds—so kids in junior and senior kindergarten—must find spaces in school board-run programs, licensed child care centres or in a home daycare setting. Recreational programs, which were previously acceptable for this age group, are now off the table.
“The reason for the age restriction for authorized recreation programs is that younger children are a more vulnerable population, and we want to do everything we can to keep kids safe,” says Heather Irwin, senior media relations coordinator for the Ministry of Education. These provisions, as with all the changes in the Child Care and Early Years Act, are a response to recommendations from the Ombudsman of Ontario’s 2014 report on unlicensed child care. This report summarized the results of an investigation launched after four children died while in the care of providers in unlicensed daycare settings in the Greater Toronto Area, over a seven-month period in 2013-2014.
All parents would agree that the safety of their children is paramount—but the new regulations don’t make things easy on families who require extended daycare. Licensed spots are difficult to come by (only 15 per cent of all children under age 12 in child care in Canada are looked after in licensed child care settings) and under the Child Care and Early Years Act, home daycares are limited in the number of kids they can have in their care. Licensed daycares may look after up to six kids; unlicensed home daycares can have five. (In both setups only two of these children can be under the age of two.) All home daycare providers must count their own children under the age of six into their ratios, too, unless the child is in full-day kindergarten; that child only needs to be counted during summer holidays.
For parents of kindergarteners, this means spots in licensed before- and after-school programs will be even more in demand. The removal of the unlicensed recreational program option for this age group narrows access to care for these families. Individual programs may still in the process of becoming licensed, but the province is focusing on creating more spots in the six to 12 age bracket. “The province is expanding the current duty to require school boards to provide before- and after-school programs for children six to 12 years old in all publicly funded elementary schools where there is sufficient demand,” says Irwin.
For parents of children six and older, their kids can be enrolled in before- and after-school care in school board-run programs, in a licensed child care centre or in authorized recreational and skill-building programs that offer after-school programming for up to three hours a day during the week, without a license. According to Irwin, many community partners offer multiple programs—especially larger organizations such as the YMCA, and Boys and Girls Clubs—which is a potential workaround for offering morning and afternoon programs. Individuals may operate a nutrition program in the morning and a recreational program after school, for instance, but they must be separate and distinct. When one organization offers the same programming before and after school for more than five children, it must be licensed as a child care centre.
We’ve known about these amendments to the regulations since 2015, when the Child Care and Early Years Act was first unveiled. It shouldn’t be a shock, and it’s frustrating that organizations are still scrambling to respond to these changes. “We implemented a phased approach of two years to provide the sector with transition time to come into compliance with the age restriction for authorized recreational and skill-building programs,” says Irwin.
Program operators who knew they couldn’t comply should have been communicating with parents long before now, to help prepare their clients for the change in programming. I mentioned this to the owner of my younger daughter’s daycare this week—as a licensee of a national child care franchise with a head office media-relations department, he didn’t want to be named—to get an insider’s perspective. “If you’re going to own and operate a child care program, licensed or unlicensed, you have to be on top of the rules. ‘I didn’t know’ isn’t acceptable where kids and their families are concerned,” he said. “Child care is already difficult to find and pay for, and it’s my job to comply with and communicate rule changes effectively.” If your care provider doesn’t know the rules, who does?
At the heart of the issue is the fact that the legislation aims to improve quality of care, to pay more attention to the safety of kids, and I doubt any parent would disagree with that. But we now have the major issue of not enough before and after-school care spots, especially for kids under the age of six.
The fix is only halfway there.