TORONTO — Ontario is allowing child-care centres to reopen as of Friday, but operators and advocates say there is no way most can implement a host of new COVID-19-era rules to open with just a few days’ notice.
Many centres are also likely to face financial challenges, they say, operating at reduced capacity and with long-promised government funding not yet flowing and no indication of more to come.
“I honestly have no idea who would be able to open tomorrow,” said Kim Yeaman, the owner and operator of Simcoe Childcare Services in Innisfil, Ont.
“This is really a two-to-three-week turnaround for redoing all of our policies and procedures, for cleaning … for training staff, for making sure we have enough staff.”
Child-care operators say they received a 20-page document with all the new rules for operating on Tuesday at 11:30 p.m. — hours after the province publicly announced centres could open Friday.
Many operators complained that businesses such as bars and campgrounds received more notice about their reopening in regions entering Stage 2.
There was likely a lot of pressure for the premier to announce the reopening, Yeaman said, but now centres are left having to tell parents “no.”
“Now the parents are angry at me for not opening, but we didn’t have the proper information to open,” she said.
Premier Doug Ford said Thursday that any centres that aren’t ready just shouldn’t open.
“There’s not an emergency,” he said. “You don’t have to rush. Just don’t open…. Take your time.”
Local medical officers of health can set their own timelines for reopening child-care centres in their regions, if they feel Friday is too soon. Several municipalities, including Toronto and York Region, have said Friday is unlikely.
Operators have to give documentation to the province confirming they have developed and reviewed enhanced health and safety protocols with staff, and made that available to parents two days before planned reopening, a spokesman for York Region said.
Among the new rules are increased cleaning, screening all staff and children for symptoms prior to entry, barring visitors from the centre — including parents except in emergencies — using blankets while holding infants and toddlers, and removing toys made of material that can’t be cleaned and disinfected, as well as communal water tables and sensory tables.
Operators will also be required to limit the number of kids and staff in a defined space to 10 people, and existing legal requirements for ratios of children to staff will remain in place.
To maintain mandated ratios of children to staff and have enough staff on hand for the extra cleaning and screening requirements, Sheila Olan-MacLean expects she would need her regular amount of staff with about half the usual number of children in her centre.
But both operators and advocates say that funding the government had committed to for centres during the closure period hasn’t yet materialized, let alone any new funding to help with start-up.
“We have a board of directors meeting tonight that I’ll be taking forward a recommendation that we do not open until, number 1, the financial situation with the closure is resolved; and, number 2, that there is funding going forward for reopening,” Olan-MacLean said of the Compass Early Learning and Care centre she runs in Peterborough, Ont.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said that stabilization funding announced several weeks ago to help the sector with fixed operating costs will continue.
Carolyn Ferns, with the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, noted that the government has also told operators to set their fees at pre-closure levels, and not charge families who won’t be using a space yet upon reopening.
“The government is trying to have this both ways,” said Ferns. “In one sense, they’re saying child care is like any other business: ‘We’ve said you can reopen, so reopen.’ But at the same time, they’re putting all these types of controls onto child care … like intervening in, say, a business decision on what your fees are.”
Centres that are scrambling to reopen are also facing the challenge of figuring out how to allot a limited number of spaces. Yeaman has already surveyed the families at her centres and she knows she won’t be able to accommodate everyone based on the demand for the reduced spaces.
The ministry’s guidance is to prioritize kids that had been served through the emergency child-care centres for essential workers, parents who have to return to work outside the home, and children with special needs.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press