Alberta child-care providers seek clarity on spending new federal funds

Child-care providers in Alberta say they are grateful for an infusion of government funding, but uncertain how exactly the money is supposed to be spent.

The provincial and federal governments announced $87 million on Tuesday for licensed child-care programs, including out-of-school care centres, day homes and preschools.

Most of the money — nearly $72 million — is coming from the federal government’s Safe Restart Funding agreement

At a news conference on Tuesday, Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz said the funding will help care providers pay for costs associated with reopening, including additional staff, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

“It will give providers the resources they need and in turn, give parents peace of mind, knowing their children and their child-care centre is the best place for their child,” she said.

Payments of $200 per licensed space, plus $2,500 per licensed program, will be distributed on October 15 and November 15.

Child-care providers say they are grateful for the financial help, but unsure of how to use it most efficiently.

“In the announcement, we didn’t really get a lot of guidance around how that funding was supposed to be spent,” said Nicki Dublenko, vice-chair of the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Alberta.

As the pandemic continues, providers are scrambling to manage revenue and track the health of children and staff members daily, she said.

“The absolute worst thing would be to distribute this money right now, and then these programs still go under in December or in the New Year because the money isn’t being used most effectively.”

Lindsay Campbell, the director of Building Blocks Daycare in Grande Prairie, is also seeking clarity in this area.

“I’m still not actually sure what my parameters are for spending this money yet,” she said.

Siobhan Vipond, who leads the Alberta Federation of Labour’s Fair Start campaign, said she was pleased to hear the children’s services minister talk about the importance of child care to the province’s economy, but worries how the new funding will be allocated.

“Depending on how they spend this money, it could not have the impact it needs to have,” she said.

Centres at half capacity

Low enrolment is one of the many challenges child-care providers face as some parents opt to keep children home due to pandemic-related fears or financial barriers.

According to the province, more than 80 per cent of licensed child-care spaces were filled before the pandemic, but as of September 11, child-care centre capacity was at 52 per cent.

Great Expectations Childcare, on Calgary Trail in south Edmonton, has space for 34 kids but only five are currently enrolled.

Owner Nadia Koziak said the pandemic delayed the licensing process and health safety approval, so her new business was not licensed until August 4.

“My landlord’s pretty good but I’m going to have to foot the bill at some point here,” she said.

Some centres could care for more kids, but COVID-19 guidelines, which cap child-care cohorts at 30, mean hiring more staff to be able to do so.

Campbell said this currently is not feasible for her company, but she would love to direct federal funding to staffing so her centre could return to normal operations.

Long-term plan needed, critics say

Critics say the lump of new funding does not go far enough to ensure all Albertans who need child care can afford it.

The provincial government, which is phasing out the former NDP government’s $25 child care pilot, changed its subsidy system this summer.

Under the new system, about 16,000 low-income families will pay less than $25 per day for child care. Households qualify for the subsidy if they earn $75,000 or less.

“The parent subsidies that have been in place for decades, and recently changed by the UCP government, do not address the long term affordability challenge for many Alberta families,” NDP MLA and children’s services critic Rakhi Pancholi said at a press conference on Tuesday.

NDP MLA Rakhi Pancholi responds to the UCP government’s child-care funding announcement Tuesday at a press conference. (Jacqui Sundquist/CBC)

“It is important to provide additional supports for low-income families, but the reality is that childcare is unaffordable for a vast majority of Albertans,” she said.

The Opposition’s child care recovery plan includes universal $25-a-day child care, an early learning and child care task force and an online portal that would connect providers with parents and track child care needs.

Campbell said she hopes a longer-term plan for universal child care is in the works.

“Our goal for anyone in this industry right now is trying to get a universal system that’s going to be sustainable over time, because while this money might be a good thing for us right now, we’re looking for the long-term future of maintaining these programs,” she said.

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