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Rebuilding child care in Canada must include a national strategy

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It's been almost five months since provincial and territorial governments closed child-care services. Now they are allowing them to reopen. Reopening -- like shuttering -- has been chaotic, anxiety-producing and inequitable for families, service providers and the child-care workforce alike. Child-care programs and parents (particularly mothers, who have been picking up a disproportionate share of the fallout) have emerged from the pandemic's acute phase much the worse for wear.

Policies, guidelines and funding around child-care services have varied extensively across Canada, with vocal objections by service providers and parents to some provincial actions -- or to absence of action. An online Canada-wide survey of more than 8,000 regulated child-care services found more than one-third of closed centres reported uncertainty about whether they would reopen. Surveyed centres overwhelmingly identified new COVID-19 related health and safety practices, low enrolment and difficulty hiring staff as significant threats to viability.

The survey showed diverse approaches to child care during the outbreak. Some provinces closed child care to all but essential worker parents. Others didn't. Essential workers received free child care in some jurisdictions but paid full fees in others. Parents paid fees to reserve post-COVID spaces in closed programs in some provinces. Others disallowed this, with several provinces providing additional funding to offset lost parent fee revenues. Some provinces closed all centres but kept family child care open. Others closed both, while one province (Saskatchewan) closed child-care centres in schools, but not other locations.

Difficult as the pandemic has been for Canadians needing or providing child care, it has generated new evidence about why and how to transform child-care policy. Looking beyond the pandemic to future reconstruction of the economy, four noteworthy lessons have emerged from COVID-19's acute phase.

Lesson one: Child care is essential

This has been thoroughly demonstrated and widely embraced: for mothers of young children to participate in the Canadian economy, there must be quality, reliable child care. In pandemic-times, governments recognized that essential workers -- medical workers and others -- needed child care so they could do their jobs.

But it is equally apparent that affordable child care is also essential for all parents in the paid labour force. Parents who had to work from home found it arduous (or impossible) to work productively. Mothers in particular, had to balance their paid work with the unpaid work of caring for, or schooling, their children. Canadian sociologists Yue Qian and Sylvia Fuller's research shows the gender gap in employment widening during the pandemic, while a Statistics Canada survey found parents reporting their "top concern was balancing child care, schooling and work" (74 per cent were very or extremely concerned).

Lesson two: Parents with school-age children depend on schools both for education and child care

During the pandemic, school closures forced parents into untenable work and family situations. Quebec reopened many elementary schools before the regular summer break, but in most other jurisdictions, what will be available for school-age children in September remains an open question. Ontario's failure to set out clear province-wide direction on reopening schools has sparked outrage.

Policy analyst Laura Dobson-Hughes summed it up: "The lack of affordable childc are, especially for low-income and racialized families, was already unsustainable and is now a crisis for many. We must make the safe return to school a political and national priority." However, with a month to go, whether or not schools will be operating fully after Labour Day is still a wide-open question in most of Canada.

Lesson three:  A market-model works poorly for delivering "care" services necessary for well-being

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the outcome of decades of failure to develop robust care provisions for children and the elderly, the latter which suffered grievously due to system breakdown in long-term care. Child care and long-term care share many characteristics. Both depend on low-paid women's labour. Service quality depends on the number, education and management of staff. Both are provincially regulated. And both are market-driven, rather than co-ordinated service systems designed with the well-being of those cared for as the primary consideration.

The pandemic revealed the fragility of Canada's parent fee-funded childcare patchwork of services, delivered by an underpaid, almost all female workforce. The national survey found 70 per cent of centres reported laying off some or all staff.

Given the low wages in the sector, there is a fear that many will not return because other, higher-paid jobs will become available. Or child-care staff may be better off financially by remaining on government income replacement programs, especially if they have to pay high child-care fees for their own children. The national survey on the effects of COVID-19 on child care found that of the 71 per cent of centres across Canada that had laid staff off, 87 per cent reported those staff members had applied for Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Thus, as they reopen, centres are struggling with lower enrolment due to COVID-related restrictions on the number of children (and fewer parent fees), extra safety-related costs and shortages of trained educators to deliver quality child care.

The pandemic provides a lesson that child care -- like other services in the increasingly important care economy -- must be regarded as a public good. Thus, they should be publicly managed and publicly funded. If child care continues to be left to the market, it will continue to fail.

Lesson four: The federal government can, and must, step in

The chaotic child-care situation during COVID-19 reinforces why a stronger federal role in child care -- constitutionally under provincial jurisdiction -- is warranted. The current fragmented approach -- with its accompanying inequality and absence of options for families -- will continue to undermine economic recovery and reconstruction. As economist Armine Yalnizyan noted, child care "is not a provincial matter but a national one. It is of national importance and we need a national plan."

Child-care advocates have proposed a two-phased federal strategy for moving from laissez-faire policy to begin building a child-care system as a central pillar of Canada's social infrastructure. Phase 1 was to have started immediately, with the federal government earmarking a significant portion of the more than $19-billion Safe Restart agreement to help the economy reopen for early years and school-age child care.

Advocates asked that these funds be used to restore licensed child care to pre-pandemic levels, with full evidence-based consideration of children's and staff's health and safety. They said federal funding was required to provide both child care for children younger than school-age and child care for school-agers to 12 years through summer, fall and winter, before and after school hours, and during regular school hours if school is not available.

However, the Safe Restart agreement provides only $625 million in federal funding for child care, without specific conditions for the new transfer. This makes the second phase of the proposed federal strategy that much more important, including immediate establishment of the promised federal early learning and child-care secretariat to steer policy development.

In Phase 2, the advocates' strategy proposes that the federal government boost annual child-care spending by $2 billion each year beginning with $2 billion in 2021-2022 (to $4 billion in 2022-2023, $6 billion in 2023-2024, and so on). As has been the understanding since the 2017 federal budget, 20 percent of federal funds would support implementation of the Indigenous Early Learning and Child Care Framework agreed to by the federal government and Indigenous governing bodies.

The strategy proposes that future agreements with provinces and territories require transferred funds to be used to move toward a fully publicly funded, publicly managed child-care system, with demonstrable improvements in accessibility, affordability, quality and inclusivity. The federal secretariat would support system-building across Canada, working with provinces, territories and Indigenous governments and communities on a child-care workforce strategy, ongoing consultation with the child-care sector and policy experts, data collection, a research agenda and sharing best practices. Importantly, the federal government must draft legislation to enshrine a right of all Canadian children to quality child care, as the Canada Health Act does for basic health care.

As Kate Bezanson, Andrew Bevan and Monica Lysack recently wrote for First Policy Response: "Child care is key to Canada's capacity to reopen and rebuild from the COVID-19 crisis…The decisions governments make in the coming months about child care system-building will be era-defining, and will have generational ripple effects."

COVID-19 has disrupted Canadians' family lives, employment, finances and public and social programs on a scale most of us have never before experienced. It has also created an opportunity for rethinking, rebuilding and recreating. What is being proposed for child care is not new -- what is new is the opportunity to actually move to create what Canada has long needed -- a full national child-care program for all. The consequence of not moving forward on child care is more serious than ever before, as recovery is now not only about recovering child care but about a just and effective recovery for Canada.

This article was written for Policy Options, Institute for Research on Public Policy, as part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada's Response special feature and was originally published July 30 2020.

Image: Marcin Jozwiak/Unsplash

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