HALIFAX — Private and non-profit child care operators in Nova Scotia say it remains to be seen how their sector will ultimately be affected by the ongoing rollout of universal pre-primary for four-year-olds across the province.
However, representatives told the legislature's human resources committee Tuesday, the big issue remains access to enough trained early childhood educators.
Nova Scotia has 2,700 registered early childhood educators (ECEs) with about 1,700 employed in regulated child care.
"Despite the reported numbers of ECEs available to practice in the province, the regulated early learning and care sector has experienced and continues to experience significant challenges in recruiting and retaining staff, impacting quality across programs," said Pam Streeter, of the Private Licensed Administrators Association, a group of for-profit day cares.
A key Liberal campaign promise during the May 2017 election, pre-primary was launched last September in 54 classes in 45 schools. In March, Education Minister Zach Churchill announced an additional 130 new classes are slated to open in 84 schools next fall.
Critics have questioned how fast the government proceeded with its plan, contending the sector will be hurt by the loss of children and qualified staff.
Lisa Davies, of the Non-Profit Directors Association, said the quick rollout has had negative effects, although there hasn't yet been the overwhelming loss of staff predicted.
"Action creates change, speedy change often creates fear," Davies told the committee.
"I believe the speed with which this happened probably is the underlying fear for a lot of the issues that have been raised around the pre-primary program and its impacts on the child care sector."
Education Department officials said 110 early childhood educators were hired to meet initial requirements, and an additional 700 will be needed by the time pre-primary is fully implemented in 2020.
"All of these new classrooms require ECEs. That is pulling those folks away from us — again not a new problem, but adding on to it," Davies later told reporters.
Streeter pointed out that pre-primary has only been introduced in under-serviced and rural areas, and the real test will come when it's fully implemented in larger urban centres.
"There aren't regulated care centres necessarily there (in rural areas) to impact," she said. "So it will be in this next year and the year after that we will see the real impact on regulated care."
Vicki Elliott-Lopez, executive director of Regulated Child Care and Licensing for the province, told the committee that universal pre-primary is providing more options for child care professionals and will act as a recruiting tool that will benefit the entire sector.
Elliott-Lopez said the effects are already being felt, with enrolment for training programs "maxed out" at the Nova Scotia Community College for the upcoming school year.
Still, she said work has to be done to bring back workers who are trained and currently aren't employed, and to recruit professionals who will be needed to fill the positions created by the expansion of pre-primary.
Elliott-Lopez said the department is working on an "aggressive marketing campaign" in addition to a long-term retention strategy.
"We are working to try to build the quality of the workforce," she said.
Meanwhile, officials said the province is continuing work to help child care centres transition to accommodating children younger than four years of age.
Last week the province announced $2.7 million in funding to assist 51 child care centres in converting 570 spaces to support families with infants and toddlers and after school care.
The money, part of a $35-million funding agreement with Ottawa, will create 144 new spaces for infants, 346 spaces for toddlers and 80 spaces for pre-primary care.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press