“On behalf of NUPGE, thank you to our members in the child care field, who are doing critical work during these difficult times. We see you and we are grateful for your service.” — Larry Brown, NUPGE President
Ottawa (16 April 2020) — The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting just how valuable early learning and child care are — for parents, for children, and for our economy. This newfound (or renewed) appreciation must not wither away after the crisis, and it must be reflected in sufficient funding and support for the sector.
Child care has proven to be essential
As the pandemic began to cause a shutdown of activity, including widespread school closures, people employed in critical service areas were called on to continue going to work every day, revealing a gap: what about child care for those parents?
Emergency child care arrangements have sprung up across the country for children of critical service workers. In other cases, parents are now home with their kids. This has given rise to numerous stories and posts expressing gratitude for educators and care providers, emphasizing how important (and, at times, challenging!) their jobs are.
Early childhood education and care has always been crucial — not only for enabling parents, especially mothers, to work, but also for the positive impact on children’s lives and on the economy as a whole. Still, the pandemic has cast child care in a new light and, for many Canadians and policymakers, brought a realization of just how valuable the sector and its professionals are.
Susan Prentice, a child care policy expert, observed in the Winnipeg Free Press: “as [critical service workers] figure out how to keep going in a pandemic where they are vitally needed, they discover their childcare arrangements are fragile and built on a shaky foundation.”
Insufficient public funding and variable, often-limited public management has resulted in a patchwork of early learning and child care arrangements across the country. Like the education system, child care falls under provincial and territorial jurisdiction. In contrast to the public education system, though, child care in Canada operates through a market model — relying largely on parent fees (except Quebec) and supplemented by varying levels of public operational funding.
At the crux of this situation is that child care is largely viewed as a private family responsibility, rather than a public one, as outlined in a recent report by the Child Care Resource and Research Unit.
Inequitable access for families
As a result, the starved system has left parents and governments scrambling for child care arrangements during the pandemic, and has given rise to a host of other issued related to child care (Policy Options).
But even prior to the pandemic, child care in Canada was characterized by rising parent fees and long wait-lists for child care spaces, even in regions with lower fees, such as Quebec, Manitoba, and Prince Edward Island where provincial governments set fees and provide operational funding, as outlined in annual research by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). A 2018 report also from the CCPA highlights the prevalence of what are known as child care deserts.
Give early childhood educators and child care providers the support they deserve
Uneven, inadequate support also directly impacts the people who work in the sector. Early childhood educators and other child care workers, the vast majority of which are women, are chronically undervalued and underpaid (Child Care Now). Many work part-time or are precariously employed.
The emergency child care options during the pandemic have made an immense impact in supporting critical service workers as they carry out key roles and services that keep us safe, healthy, and fed. The workers who are providing that child care must also be supported in order to do their work, as critical service workers, too.
In addition to fair wages, this means that existing health and safety measures must be in place, plus additional precautions related to COVID-19. While their jobs are often demanding, these workers face additional risks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Early childhood educators and child care providers make an invaluable contribution to our society,” said Larry Brown, President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). “While this has become clearer than ever during the pandemic, we know it is true always. On behalf of NUPGE, thank you to our members in the child care field, who are doing critical work during these difficult times. We see you and we are grateful for your service.”
A plan for the COVID-19 pandemic
Experts and advocates, like Child Care Now and the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, have recommended a COVID-19 child care plan that includes the following elements:
- Close all licensed childcare for regular use until social distancing is no longer necessary.
- Continue to pay all childcare staff as if they are still working.
- For parents required to work or those working in essential services, broadly defined, establish free age-appropriate emergency childcare programs for children up to 12 years in existing centres, licensed family childcare or schools during the closed period.
- Ensure that parent fees are suspended during closings.
- Maintain all government funding to service providers during closings and provide additional funding to compensate for the loss of income from parent fees and/or parent subsidies.
Valuing child care not just today, but every day
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a rethinking of the types of jobs that are considered critical, as articulated strongly in recent analysis by economist Jim Stanford. As with other traditionally undervalued work, the pandemic has revealed for some (and confirmed for others) just how valuable child care — and its providers — are to Canadian families and to the economy. This recognition must not disappear once the crisis is over, and it must be met with more than empty rhetoric.
As NUPGE highlighted in its #AllTogetherNow campaign, early childhood education and child care are a win-win-win: providing a safe, enriching environment for children, enhancing women’s economic security, and contributing to a strong economy overall. An adequately funded system would also provide well-paying, fulfilling jobs. The current crisis underscores now more than ever — we need a national public child care system.