Nova Scotia

Slow return of kids to daycare leads to tense times, layoffs for some operators

Early into the reopening of daycares in Nova Scotia amid COVID-19, some sites have so few children they are struggling to remain financially viable.

Nova Scotia government willing to work with centres on case-by-case basis to help

Child-care centres in Nova Scotia reopened last week, but many sites have seen low numbers. (Robert Short/CBC)

As daycares across Nova Scotia have reopened amid COVID-19, some are operating at such a low capacity that they've had to lay off workers.

Jewell Mitchell, executive director of the Nova Scotia College of Early Childhood Educators, said she's aware from speaking with students of the college that some sites have had to reduce their staff levels.

The college operates three child-care centres and Mitchell said none of them are close to operating at 50 per cent capacity, which is a concern. Although they've not had to lay anyone off, things are challenging because the provincial government has guaranteed people's spots until Sept. 1, even if children don't return through the summer.

But with the government only backstopping parent fees to a maximum of 50 per cent of a site's capacity, Mitchell said things become precarious if a large percentage of parents are keeping their kids at home.

'Not a lot of room or margins for error'

"If you don't have the proper amount of parent fees and you're still maintaining all your staff, there's a financial impact and I don't think you'd want to see any more ECEs laid off," she said in a telephone interview.

"There's only so much centres can do to carry wages. There's not a lot of room or margins for error there."

Mary Ellen Shatford, the daycare director at Through the Years Day Care & Community Centre in Hubbards, said only 26 of their 100 children returned on June 15.

While some parents might have been leery of sending their kids back right away, even as the COVID-19 curve flattens, Shatford said others might just be taking advantage of the ability to hold their space for additional time without worrying about child-care costs or they may be continuing to work from home and thus not need care at the moment.

Regardless, the shortfall presents very real problems. They're actively recruiting new families just for the summer and recalling present families to see if they're feeling more comfortable about returning, Shatford said in an email.

When the coronavirus pandemic first arrived in Nova Scotia in March, shutting down daycares, the province said no one would lose their spots. Child-care centres were also made whole, with the government picking up the tab on parent fees for the last three months to the tune of $25 million.

How the province is supporting operators

When centres were allowed to reopen, the government said parent fees would only be covered to a maximum of 50 per cent of capacity. Despite that, a spokesperson for the province said they would work with any individual operators who feel they are not viable or have concerns on a case-by-case basis.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the government should have better anticipated the situation and not put daycare operators in a position where they might now be worrying about their future.

"They ought to have known very significant numbers of those parents were not going to — under those circumstances — pay to have their kids in care," he said in a phone interview.

"When they opened on June 15 under the present circumstances, there was an incoherence about the government's approach, a kind of taking for granted that this would somehow just work."

A case for universal child care

Tory MLA Tim Halman said the government must find out what daycares need and ensure they receive it.

"It's really scary to think that some of these facilities could be lost," he said.

"They're critical in communities for supporting our children and families."

Despite all the challenges, Mitchell said ECEs have risen to the occasion, continuing to provide high-level care while balancing the new public health protocols. Both she and Shatford said they remain optimistic the province, based on its track record, will be there to support operators who are struggling so all current spaces will be ready and available when kids are ready to return.

Nova Scotia daycares were shut down on March 17 because of COVID-19, but only recently reopened. (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Shatford has an even broader hope.

"If this challenging last three months has proven anything in Canada, it is that early learning and care centres are essential to both the economy and society," she said.

"Perhaps this will push our government to finally look at a universally-funded child care system throughout the entire country of Canada."