May 15, 2020

Relaunching Alberta Part 1: Solving the daycare problem

Alberta has taken its first cautious step towards re-opening the provincial economy. Phase one began on May 14th in most of the province, with delays in the Calgary and Brooks areas because of the higher concentration of COVID-19 cases.

As Albertans begin to return to work, one of the biggest challenges they face will be finding child care. Schools remain closed. Daycares and day camps are included in phase one of the province’s relaunch strategy but are subject to restrictions that will limit capacity. On top of that, while the province is allowing day camps to open, many municipalities are not.

Subject to maintaining employee health and safety, and minimizing the risk of a new outbreak, Alberta’s economy needs to re-open as quickly as possible. If parents cannot find access to child care, it will delay their return to work, prolong the economic recovery, and add to the provincial government’s fiscal burden down the road.

The most urgent issue is daycare access. The Alberta government has issued specific guidelines for how daycares should run. Child care programs must operate in cohorts of no more than 10 people, including staff. In addition to health-related protocols, there are strict rules preventing any member of one cohort from interacting with any other cohort. Included in that are restrictions on staff interactions, use of shared spaces and equipment, and requirements to stagger drop-off and pickup times.

These measures are sensible and prudent, but they do create significant challenges for daycare businesses. To abide by these regulations, most will have to operate at greatly reduced capacity, while also implementing expensive and restrictive health and safety protocols. The result will be higher operating costs and lower incoming revenues. Faced with that prospect, many daycares may choose not to open right away. And those that do will offer have limited spaces available.

Alberta businesses are aware of this problem and are planning a slow transition to resuming some semblance of normal operations. Many are being as flexible as possible in giving their employees the choice to return to the workplace if they are able, allowing those who must care for children to continue working from home.

These measures will help ease the pressure on daycares and parents, but not all businesses have that level of flexibility. What, then, should the provincial government do to address this challenge and help Albertans get back to work?

The most immediate step is for the province to prioritize daycare access to those unable to work from home. At the same time, businesses will have to continue to be flexible in recalling workers and, whenever possible, allow those with outstanding child care needs to remain at home in the short term.  

Second, the province should also work with municipalities to co-ordinate policies on opening day camps for older children. Restrictions would need to be in place to protect the health of those involved, but until schools re-open, parents will need some care options for their older children.

Third, the province is offering grants to daycares, but it needs to increase support. The province has provided up to $17.8 million in grants, varying in degree and purpose with three different “phases” of daycares reopening. Daycares receive a grant of 25% of the cost of rent and utilities in phase 1 pre-reopening; a second grant for cleaning and sanitation supplies and to recruit more staff in phase 2 post-reopening; and potentially a third grant to help with deferred bills and operational issues.

While welcome, these supports are likely insufficient to offset the added costs facing daycares or be enough to encourage all from re-opening in the short term. Moreover, they do not address the capacity issue. New restrictions will limit the number of spaces available at each daycare. That means lower revenues for daycare providers and fewer spaces available for children as their parents return to work.

The fastest and easiest way to preserve daycare capacity while also abiding by health and safety protocols is to allow existing daycare providers to spread their current operations across multiple locations. That way, cohorts will have more room, interactions will be minimized, and each daycare could offer as many spaces as it did before.  

To quickly expand the number of daycare facilities, the province should work with commercial landlords to use the vast quantities of vacant office space in Alberta’s major cities to create additional temporary daycare facilities. The province would need to accelerate all regulatory approvals; pay the additional rent and utilities costs incurred by the daycare operation; and provide a per-child subsidy to offset administrative, liability, transportation and set-up costs. These subsidies would need to be available for as long as covid-related measures are in place.

Access to child care is perhaps the single biggest barrier Albertans face as they prepare to return to work. Our recommendations will mean an added cost onto an already grim provincial budget. But what Albertan parents without child care already know, the price tag will pale in comparison to the benefits for individual families and the province’s quick economic recovery.

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