Full-day kindergarten roll-out may create headaches

While most people agree that getting young children into school earlier and keeping them there longer is beneficial, some are worried about the consequences the Ontario Full Day Learning Program’s rollout will have on childcare centres and low-income families.

City staff say the problems will occur during the five-year transition period that will begin in September as 15 per cent of children aged 4 and 5 will leave childcare centres to attend full-day learning and $10.32 million in subsidized funding go with them.

In Ottawa, that means that 2,548 children will begin full-day kindergarten this fall, mostly from low-income areas that receive high levels of child subsidies from the city and the province.

Because the rollout is targeted at low-income communities that benefit most from early childhood education centres, those areas will lose the subsidies that have been their lifeblood.

At the same time, schools offering full-day learning are not obligated to offer early-morning and after-school programs for 24 months, which could leave some families scrambling to find the necessary childcare.

The city projects that the five-year roll-out period will affect 69.5 per cent of the city’s childcare centres as they cope with declining demand for children aged 4 to 10 and restructure their centres to target younger children, of which there are 1,322 currently on a city-wide wait-list.

On Tuesday, the city’s community and protective services committee heard the city’s childcare service plan, which the province requires by June 30.

During the presentation, Aaron Burry, the general manager of community and social services, said the city will face some serious challenges in the upcoming years because officials lack information and money to plan for the full-day education rollout.

“You can’t really plan when you don’t have any information,” said Burry.

Despite the challenges, Burry said the city is doing its best to get the program launched.

The province has come up with $596,300 from an early-learning stabilization fund that will help smooth out some wrinkles during the transition.

The city has received 41 requests for stabilization funds totaling $3.4 million, far outstripping the initial provincial allotment.

Queen’s Park has plans to increase childcare subsidies to $51 million over the next five years, but Burry said the province needs to spend that money within three years rather than five in order to maintain childcare spaces that could be lost as more children enroll in full-day kindergarten.

Burry said that because low-income, subsidy-dependent neighbourhoods will implement full-day learning first, their childcare centres could fold before they can access provincial funds to retrofit and provide badly needed facilities for children younger than four.

“I don’t see the logic in forcing centres to close, only to need to re-open them once things stabilize,” said Burry.

In response, the committee passed a motion that calls for council to petition the province to accelerate spending, dedicate $1 million in city funds to help centres cope with the transition, broaden the scope of consultation to include parent groups, and create mechanisms for centres to submit business plans.

Somerset Ward Coun. Diane Holmes, a member of the committee, said that most of the problems associated with the transition are due to the province rushing into the program.

“The whole thing is a mess,” said Holmes. “It’s coming in too fast without being thought through.”

Represented by the Child Care Action Network, the city’s childcare workers said they support full-day learning but are concerned about the unknowns with September only months away.

“Everything is happening at warp speed,” said spokesperson Joanne Hightower. “We’re constantly looking at where the changes are and what to expect in programming changes. Everything depends on what groups you’re looking at and which school board you’re working with.”

Cambridge Street Public School is the only school in Centretown that will be offering full-day learning in September. Like many other schools across the province, Cambridge Street will not be offering morning or after-school programming in its first year.