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Child-care wait lists balloon in many Ontario regions amid $10-a-day program

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Child-care waiting lists have ballooned across Ontario since the province signed on to the national $10-a-day program, as demand due to the lower fees appears to be far outpacing the creation of new spaces in many regions.

In Kawartha Lakes, one of several municipalities with a central waiting list, children are now set to spend an average of 6.4 years waiting for licensed child care, up from an average of 3.7 years in early 2022, before Ontario joined the program.

“Many will age out before they have access to a space,” Janine Mitchell, manager of social services, wrote in a report to council in December.

In the Region of Waterloo, there has been a 115 per cent increase in the number of children on the waiting list since the $10-a-day program announcement, with 9,200 kids now in the queue.

Niagara Region has seen a 76 per cent increase in its waiting list since March 2022, with particular spikes in demand for care for toddlers and preschoolers. The waiting list for the latter age group has gone from 712 to 2,326, an increase of 227 per cent.

Ottawa's waiting list has increased more than 41 per cent, and for more than half of the families on the list, the date they needed child care has already passed.

The centralized waiting lists largely involve child-care operators that are part of the national program as 92 per cent across the province have opted in to the $10-a-day system. Both licensed centre-based operators and licensed home daycares can be part of the federal program.

The waiting list in Kawartha Lakes has grown in part due to the increased demand that has come from significantly reduced fees - they have so far been cut in half and are set to be lowered further under the national program - and partly due to a shortage of early childhood educators, Mitchell said.

“We might have a child-care program that's licensed to serve 10 infants, but because they don't have (enough) qualified staff ... they may not be able to take 10, instead they may only be able to take six infants,” she said in an interview.

Government officials have warned the province could be short 8,500 early childhood educators by 2026, the year Ontario aims to have created 86,000 new spaces.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced a wage increase late last year for ECEs that will push starting wages from one of the lowest in Canada to one of the highest.

The promise of 86,000 child-care spaces includes ones created since 2019. Ontario has seen more than 41,000 spots added since then, Lecce said, though his office said not all of those are in centres that are part of the $10-a-day program.

“All provinces knew that with fees being reduced, demand would rise,” the minister said this week.

“We have a plan to increase spaces across the board, 86,000, and obviously the government is committed to keep building spaces well in excess to meet the demand of the families in the province.”

Kawartha Lakes has been successful in increasing the number of licensed home daycares, but child-care operators have said government funding for new centre-based spaces is too restrictive, Mitchell said.

The funding can be used for renovations to create new spaces or to buy equipment, but cannot be used to buy land or buildings, or for school-based spaces.

Lecce said the money offered through startup grants represents about one-third of the cost of starting a new child-care centre.

“So that is a huge incentive,” he said. “In addition, we've cut red tape for child-care centres to start up quicker, to get licensed in a more efficient manner, so we're looking at this from a multitude of ways of how can we help these often small business or non-profit operators get their doors opened.”

A representative from Andrew Fleck Children's Services in Ottawa told a provincial pre-budget hearing last month that Ontario's delayed release of a new funding formula for the $10-a-day program is also contributing to hampering the creation of new spaces.

The non-profit provider has a new location with concept drawings, costing estimates, architects moving to the building permit stage, and approved expansion spaces under the $10-a-day program, Kim Hiscott said, but what's needed is both funding for construction and operating expense funding that's not based on fees operators were charging two years ago.

“We want to expand to address the high waiting lists but cannot, again, because of the lack of commitment to recover actual costs,” Hiscott said.

Some operators have said that the current funding model, in which parents pay half of what fees were in 2022 and the government pays the other half, is not enough to cover rising expenses such as staffing costs, catering, rent, heating and supplies. They are calling for a new model that reimburses them for the true cost of operating child care.

When fees are further reduced to an average of $10 a day, Mitchell, in Kawartha Lakes, believes that will fuel further demand. Ontario's push to build 1.5 million homes by 2031 will also contribute to demand, she said.

“The city has a commitment to build 6,500 homes ... which will also increase the number of people looking to access licensed child care,” Mitchell said. “So we just will always be looking for ways to increase child care.”

A spokesperson for Jenna Sudds, the federal minister of families, children and social development, said the government knew there would be challenges in developing the system, but it is ready to face them.

“We hope that the government of Ontario will continue to work collaboratively with service providers and other stakeholders to ensure that more families can access affordable child care, faster,” Soraya Lemur said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2024.

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