The government has a long-term plan to address the lack of child care spaces in the province, but more spaces are needed now, says a veteran early childhood educator.
“Spaces are in dire need and there is a huge shortage of spaces for infants and toddlers,” says Joanne Morris, the acting manager of the College of the North Atlantic’s (CNA) children’s centre in St. John’s.
An early childhood educator for more than 40 years, she said in Newfoundland and Labrador there are 63,800 children, from infants to 12 years of age, and of those, 39,600 have working mothers.
Meanwhile, Morris said, there are 7,200 licenced spaces in the province, which means only 18 per cent of the demand is being met.
“So there’s an obvious shortage,” she said.
“My information comes from the number of families on the waiting list for this centre and the number of calls I receive every day from parents or prospective parents who are looking for child care.”
The centre has 37 families waiting for an infant space, and there are only six of those. There are 35 families waiting for toddler spaces, of which there are eight. At the preschool level there are 40 families waiting for one of 24 spaces.
CNA’s children’s centre is licensed for children from six months to 82 months of age and is a demonstration facility for CNA’s early childhood education program.
Students in the program use the centre as part of the lab work required for their courses, as well as for field placement. Priority placement is given to students and faculty of the college.
“When I meet with people from other centres, they have indicated that they also carry significant waiting lists for those age groups,” Morris said.
There are 1,500-1,700 early childhood educators practising in the province, about 200 licensed centres and 130 regulated family child care homes.
Legislation from 1999 requires all staff to have at least entry-level certification, which is most often achieved through an orientation course.
That legislation is under review by the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services as part of its 10-year strategy — “Caring for Our Future” — to develop quality, sufficient and affordable child care in the province between 2012-22.
Consultations were held in 2011 and again this year.
When The Telegram contacted the department recently for an update on the status of the review of the Child Care Services Act, it was told it was being finalized.
“It is expected that the proposed new legislation will be introduced in the fall 2014 sitting of the House of Assembly,” said an emailed statement.
During consultations, the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Newfoundland and Labrador told the government the system does not meet the needs of children, families and employers, and significant changes are required.
“It is the position of (the association) that only high-quality child care is acceptable and it can only be provided by those who are educated and knowledgeable in child development and how children learn,” says the position paper.
The association suggested the government put measures in place to attract Level II early childhood educators and support those in the field to reach the required level.
“It is the position of (the association) that while there is a need for many more high quality child care spaces in the province, expansion should not take place until the shortage of qualified (early childhood educators) has been addressed,” the association’s submission said.
Legislation requires all people who work in child care centres and regulated child care homes to be certified at various levels of education based on their position.
Graduates of the college program hold a two-year diploma in early childhood education and receive Level II certification. That qualification, along with two years’ experience, can qualify them to be an operator of a centre. If students decide to leave the program after one year, then they can obtain Level 1 certification and can work in a homeroom but cannot become an operator.
Morris began working with the early childhood program in 1991 and developed the distance education program in 2000. She has taught both programs.
She said one of the biggest challenges is attaining a fully qualified workforce — about half practising in the field today have a two-year diploma.
Under the government’s strategy, the intent is to open up about 4,800 new spaces, Morris said, so the college needs to graduate more-qualified early childhood educators to ensure there are qualified people to work.
“But there are some longstanding challenges facing the profession, such as not being valued for the work and low wages,” said Morris.
“There is little recognition for the fact that they must be educated and certified to work by legislation. It is a very demanding job.”
In terms of wages, she said the government has acknowledged they are low and provides a supplement of $6,660 per year to qualified early childhood educators and $10,000 to full-time operators.
“Wages are, on average, $12 to $14 an hour, which is low for people with a two-year college education. The government implemented the supplement as a recruitment and retention initiative, and it does help to stabilize the field to a certain extent,” she said.
Morris said there’s a systemic reason why wages are low.
“Child care services are not profitable because about 80 per cent of an operating budget goes towards salaries, another 10 per cent towards food and 10 per cent towards consumable program supplies, rent, utilities,” she said.
“In order to make it profitable, parent fees would need to be raised to a point that most parents would not be able to afford it.”
In Quebec, a different model is used, in which parents pay $7 per day and the government pays the difference.
“This equalizes the opportunity in that province for all families to use regulated child care, regardless of income,” Morris said.
“It also shifts child care to a model which is both publicly and privately funded. Advocates for a national child care policy would like to see this kind of a model throughout Canada.”