The federal and Saskatchewan governments are lowering child-care costs to get closer to a $10-a-day child-care plan. While the move has been positively welcomed by families and the child-care sector, it has left many providers scrambling due to short notice.
On Friday afternoon, the province announced that families with children under six in provincially licensed child-care spaces can get a fee reduction grant, which will mean paying around $300 to $400 less per month, starting Feb. 1, 2022. The grants are also retroactive to July 1, 2021, meaning some families will get a refund, depending on the age of their child and the fees they pay.
The goal had been for Saskatchewan families to see their child-care fees reduced by 50 per cent by the end of next year, but Saskatchewan is achieving that goal ahead of schedule, and is the first province to do so.
Sue Delanoy, spokesperson for the advocacy group Child Care Now Saskatchewan, said that while the announcement offers financial relief for families and a way to re-imagine child-care in the province, the details remain unclear.
"We're very happy about it but the devil is always in the details. A trainwreck is happening where an announcement is made that everybody in the sector is going to get a $3 raise. Well, not really. That your child-care is going to be 50 per cent [as expensive]. Not really," Delanoy said.
Too tight a timeline with too little details
Lisa Leibel, executive director at Preston Early Learning Centre, agreed that the present timelines are too tight for the operators, which now have a 24-page report to review on filling out the grant applications.
"The tight timeline and figuring out what requirements are going to be needed in order to fill out these forms is a very hard task," she said.
Leibel said providers are responsible for tracking down past families for reimbursements, which requires a lot of resources. She noted that families might not receive some of the grant monies until February.
She said the province trumpeting a 50 per cent cost reduction poses more challenges.
"Our infant fees are like $1,320 a month, the maximum grant that parents can access right now is $400 for an infant fee. That does not reduce their parent fee by 50 per cent," she said.
Leibel said that since the announcement, learning centre has been receiving many calls from parents seeking answers. Leibel said the duty to communicate such details has been offloaded to the providers.
"Parents are looking for concrete answers, unfortunately we don't have a lot of information to share regarding the fine details about the payouts and when exactly that is going to happen," Leibel said.
"The manpower itself in order to do this is going to be incredible in a sector that is already struggling to fill staffing positions. We were in a crisis prior to COVID. It is a definitive crisis now."
Supply and demand might be impacted
Saskatchewan Early Childhood Association executive director Georgia Lavallee said it is a challenging process for a sector that was already fatigued by the pandemic and operators "would have appreciated more time to complete the information and data collection."
Lavallee said there are presently more than 16,000 licensed early learning and child-care spaces in the province.
The almost $1.1 billion in federal funding over the next five years is also slated to create 28,000 new regulated early learning and child-care spaces in Saskatchewan for children under six years old.
"That is a very big goal for Saskatchewan. Currently the workforce is not enough to support 28,000 spaces. There will need to be a comprehensive workforce strategy in place to support those spaces," Lavallee said.
Leibel, who is also a member of Delanoy's advocacy group, is planning to meet with the government before Christmas to discuss the roadmap ahead.
"We're a bit of a child-care desert here in Saskatchewan. We don't have enough supply for the demand," Delanoy said. "A lot of young parents put their names in for a child-care centre before getting pregnant, but we do not have enough space for children."
Provincial Education Minister Dustin Duncan said in August that the average licensed child-care provider is expected to see a wage increase of up to $3 an hour. Both Delanoy and Leibel said that statement is controversial, as the average wage was decided through a survey of rural and urban wages, with the former being lesser.
"Some of my staff will not see any of that increase, because they are already above the provincial average. I have employees who've been with me for 30 years, and it's really unfortunate that they will not see any money from this current announcement. That's disappointing," Leibel said.
The announcement could mean more unlicensed child care spaces becoming licensed.
"The challenge of the deal right now is that we need more licensed space. More licensed spaces means capital for buildings, it means education. This is not an overnight deal," Delanoy said.
Push for licensing
Katherine Stevenson, a mother of a seven-year-old immunocompromised son and prekindergarten daughter, has seen firsthand the bureaucracy around getting a license.
She is part of a group trying to start a licensed child-care centre for immunocompromised children in Saskatoon.
"It's slightly vague and uncertain how everyone's going to access these funds or wage subsidies. It's a lot of hoops to jump through to become licensed," she said.
It took the group almost a year and hours of work involving health and fire inspections, among other steps. Now they await a review for their licence on Dec. 10.
"In the needs assessment for our space, we found an estimate to be well over 40 for the preschool program when we only have nine spots. That's just the immunocompromised group, where we're out by a factor of four. I suspect the rest of the province is probably similar for typical kids," she said.
Assistant deputy minister of education Gerry Craswell said the short turnaround o the announcement was to "get money in the hands of parents as quickly as possible."
He said the province decided to keep the grant money consistent across the board.
"We're giving the same amount of a reduction for each family, so every child that is an infant in a child-care centre, it would be $395 across the board regardless of what you're currently paying," Craswell said. "Across the province, that will average out to about 50 per cent, but the actual reduction for each family will be consistent."
Craswell said the wage increase, and training programs with bursaries and tuition support, are in place to make more people interested in becoming an early childhood educator. He said it will help to address the need for more workers.
"Our hope and our expectation is that a large number of unlicensed providers will choose to become licensed. There is an application process but I don't think it's extremely overwhelming," he said.
Relief for families
Stevenson said her group started its work with hopes of such funding eventually coming through.
"This funding is life changing for us and for the families that we serve," she said.
She is delighted that the announcement would mean her daughter will have the opportunity to attend their daycare.
For Gori Shivlal, a mother of two boys, the announcement means more financial affordability for families.
Shivlal used to run an unlicensed home day-care in Regina prior to the pandemic. She is currently studying for her nursing program.
"I will be sending my youngest son to daycare next fall. It's more affordable now, otherwise, I'd have to call someone from back home to help me out."