Fort McMurray child-care centres looking for more government support for COVID-19 challenges

Some child-care centres in Fort McMurray are looking to the provincial government for help as COVID-19 outbreaks and the looming summertime lull has owners worried about permanent closures.

YMCA in Fort McMurray closed 9 centres for a week because of staff isolating

The Early Start Learning Centre is operating at a loss of about $11,000 a month. (Early Start Learning Centre)

Some child-care centres in Fort McMurray are looking to the provincial government for help as COVID-19 outbreaks and the looming summertime lull has owners worried whether their businesses will survive. 

Krystal Churcher, owner of Early Start Learning Centre, said the pandemic has been crushing her business.

Churcher said she has already dipped into her savings and sold assets to keep the business going and it's been operating at a loss of about $11,000 a month during the pandemic. 

Normally, the summers are slow and she offers summer programs to cover the rent, but with current health restrictions she doesn't know whether she can host those programs this year. 

She said her business costs about $51,000 to run each month including rent and wages. Because she runs a preschool she's not allowed to apply for wage top-ups that daycares can get from the provincial government. But she has been able to get some of the rent and wage subsidies, which have allowed her to keep her business open. 

From left to right, Rob, Victoria, Ryan and Krystal Churcher. Krystal Churcher owns Early Start Learning Centre. (Submitted by Krystal Churcher)

Annalise Yuzda, vice-president of child care for the YMCA of Northern Alberta, said all nine of the child-care centres they operate in Fort McMurray had to close for a week because of staff shortages. Only five out of 50 staff were available because the rest had tested positive for COVID-19 or were isolating because of a close contact. 

"People have to go to work and they need child care," Yuzda said. "It was a tough decision to make but we had to do it." 

She said because the YMCA still had to pay operating costs and refund parents, the loss of revenue was about $63,000. 

"What we really need is help with operating costs and help with PPE equipment."

Before the pandemic, early childhood educators lost the northern allowance which was about $1,000 a month for workers. Yuzda said that, in conjunction with the pandemic, has been the "perfect storm." 

The YMCA sent a letter to Children's Services Minister Rebecca Schulz outlining its concerns on April 30, but hasn't received a response yet. 

Jennifer Usher, with the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Alberta, said there is a shortage of available workers across the province. 

Usher said many child-care centres are at risk of permanently closing because there is low enrolment and revenue loss during temporary closures.

Usher said the AECEA has been asking for assistance for the sector, specifically PPE funding and operational funding. 

"If we had a really well-planned, well-funded system in Alberta we would be able to weather these crises much more effectively," said Usher. 

She would also like to see rapid testing in child-care centres. 

Kids play with a duckling at Early Start Learning Centre. (Early Start Learning Centre)

In March, the provincial government provided 11,800 early childhood educators with $1,200 through the critical worker benefit, Schulz's press secretary Becca Polak said in an email. 

"Lines of communication with the child-care sector have been open throughout the pandemic, including through nearly half a dozen telephone town halls with the child-care sector," Polak said.

Polak said the province has worked with the federal government to provide almost $130 million for pandemic relief, such as cleaning supplies and PPE.

The statement also says that the ministry will continue to work with child-care operators and "we'll continue to be responsive to the needs of kids and families in Fort McMurray and across Alberta."