I've written a version of this post many times over the last 2 years. I've always refrained from posting or sending it to our families, however, as we inch closer to 2018 and we still find ourselves in the same situation at the hands of our Department and Minister, I feel that it's imperative to clearly share our experience and frustrations to families and our child care community. Part of the work that we do here is advocacy work - advocating for high quality child care in Nova Scotia for all children. Advocating for accessible and affordable child care for families. Advocating for professional work environments and pay for early childhood educators.
Since opening our doors in June 2014 there have been many changes to our sector. Six months after we opened, It was announced that our sector would be undergoing a review. To anyone navigating the child care sector in NS, it's no surprise that the patchwork of programs that have existed are no longer working for families. Families cannot find high quality, affordable child care. Early Childhood Educators in NS were the lowest paid in the country. All other Provinces (with the exception of the Yukon and NWT) have adopted a Framework on Early Childhood Education which offers a baseline of care and quality to children in licensed child care centres. It was time for Nova Scotia to join the rest of Canada. These are all changes that we were excited and optimistic about. However, the reality of how they have impacted our ability to operate has been significant.
The first change to come our way was that as of January 2015 all funding was frozen. This came without any warning or indication. This impacted us in the loss of funding for 'Supported Child Care' funds which would have been used to pay for our support staff costs here. Our ability to offer high quality child care is tied to our ability to support teachers and children in the classroom. We operate alongside the majority of child care centres within the HRM that do receive this funding. We have absorbed this cost into our operational budget, however, we know that it is not sustainable long-term.
Following this we received memos from our Department stating that effective immediately, any licensed child care centre receiving government funding would have to freeze their parent fees and as of October 2016 agree to pay their ECE's a base level wage as dictated by the Department and tied directly to education levels. The intention of these changes was to ensure that child care remain 'affordable' for families, and to raise the pay level for trained ECE's. I am confident in saying that these changes are welcomed developments in our field, however, the ability of centres to be able to independently make them work has been hugely problematic.
Any one of these realities has the ability to cripple a centre's ability to operate. When you compound them all together over the course of the last 2 years - they have created a climate within our sector that at any time, many centres have no idea how they are going to continue to operate. Many centres have been forced to close, each time leaving families with little to no notice that they will not be opening the following Monday.
In terms of our experience, as a new centre (3 years in) these developments have crippled our ability to do any sort of short to long term planning or budgeting. We have seen this in two ways.
The first, in the loss of our initial funding for Supported Child Care in January 2015. We are still waiting for our new funding formula which may or may not address this loss. It is our understanding that moving forward there will be NO funding available for support costs or inclusive child care.
The second in our ability to expand or open a second location. The demand for spaces at A Tiny Lab far exceeds our current capabilities. We offer 42 full-time spaces and for the last two years have maintained an active waiting list between 150-200 families. We have closed our waiting list due to the reality that we will never be able to offer a space to a large majority of these families, however, we still continue to get emails, phone calls and drop-ins daily with families asking HOW they can join our wait-list and explaining why they want their child here at A Tiny Lab. For the last 2 years we have been activitly working with our Department for a modest expansion.
Initially we were told that while our sector was undergoing this review, that no new licenses would be issued to either expand our current operations or to open a second location. We were advised to wait. A year later, once this ban was revised, we were informed that we could apply for a license to expand, however that we would likely not be eligible to receive any new funding for any new spaces offered. We were advised that there was not an identified need in our community (North End Halifax) to justify an expansion. We were told that our active wait-list was not enough to illustrate a strong need for child care. It was explained to us and our sector as a whole, that the Department would be putting out a 'Strategic Growth Plan' (to be released December 2016 - still waiting) which would show where the demands for child care existed and that only centres opening in these areas would be eligible to be considered to receive funding at a future date. We were told (off the record) that no areas on the Peninsula would be identified on this map. We asked for any information available on their process, on how data was collected, how these demographics were studied. To date we have no answers, no information and the Strategic Growth Plan has yet to be released.
The most recent development was the announcement in May 2017 of a new, Pre-Primary program to be offered in public schools for 4 year olds. I should mention, the review that I've spoken of here has been completed, an action plan was formed and released last June with recommendations on how to move forward as a sector. NOWHERE in this review or recommendations was there mention of a need for a pre-primary program to be offered in public schools. The impact this development has and will continue to have on our sector is another blog post in itself.
You can imagine how surprised we were this past August (one month before school beginning) when the new pre-primary locations were announced and out of the 3 schools within our small geographic region, two of them would be, and are now, offering pre-primary classes (Joseph Howe School and St Stephens). Our sector was assured by the Minister that these new pre-primary classes would have minimal impact on our programs as their priority for Phase 1 was to offer them in areas were there currently were not licensed child care centres located - only in area where there has been a determined NEED.
Despite the overwhelming demand that we have, the reputation that we have built for ourselves over the last 3 years as providers of high quality child care and a solid business plan, we do not see how it is possible to take on any further risk and uncertainty with an expansion under these current conditions. We sincerely hope that these conditions begin to change so that we are able to begin to work towards some long-term planning for our centre. We are not a corporation. We are not big box child care. We are a young family in Nova Scotia who wanted to create a progressive and dynamic place for children, families and teachers. We believe in the work that we do and in the work that many other high quality child care centres do on a daily basis here within the HRM.
What I ask at the end of this very long post, is that you take a moment to fill out this survey. It would appear that these surveys are the only means available to share your experience of child care options in NS. Our sector was promised a consultation after the Pre-Primary announcement was made. We have been promised a consultation before Phase II rolls out. We have been told by the Minister that the intention of Pre-Primary is to have minimal impact on licensed child care centres ability to operate. Today he is suggesting that he has not heard the overwhelming response from our sector of how these changes are impacting our ability to operate. It has been suggested by our Minister that they will work with us to accommodate the overwhelming need for after-school care for school aged children, and now pre-primary aged children. We have been waiting for information related to this since June. We have been waiting for information related to all other issues I've mentioned here in this post for over 2 years.
It would appear that this survey is the only means that we will be provided with to contribute to this conversation. If you could take a moment to advocate for the need for licensed child care centres in NS by filling out their survey it would be greatly appreciated. It appears that at this time the Department is only interested in hearing about the experiences of families, as these questions are written towards parents - not child care centres or early childhood educators. At the very least, we are hoping that a survey for our sector is coming next.
We will continue to work and push to make our business model more sustainable so that we can continue to offer high quality child care to children and families and a supportive work environment for our teachers and staff. This is the vision that we have for child care in NS and what continues to push us forward in our daily work.