While some daycare operators have opened their doors again to the children of essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic, others say they will remain closed until they get clearer answers from the province.
Just days after it was announced that all licensed daycares were to close at day's end last Friday, some facilities reopened Monday to provide child care to essential-service workers, but muddled messaging from the province and uncertainty about funding has left many early childhood educators and staff "totally confused," Ryerson School Age Centre executive director Stephania Kostiuk said Tuesday.
"To date, we have not been informed as to how we’ll get our money back or… how much of an operating grant, just that our operating grants are coming — to what extent, we don’t know," she said.
Families Minister Heather Stefanson announced a $27.6-million plan Friday that suggested daycares would receive operating funding from the province only if they remain open, something Kostiuk — who operates four child-care centres around the city with more than 220 children — said she felt would not be responsible to do under the current circumstances.
"We decided to remain closed because they couldn’t guarantee the safety of the people that were working," she said.
In a tweet later that same day, Stefanson clarified provincial operating funds would be funnelled to daycares regardless of whether they were open.
Based on the advice of chief provincial health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, the plan also requires centres that open to take in no more than 16 children, a number Kostiuk said she did not believe was a universally applicable standard.
"Each daycare is a different size, so how you would come to the mathematical equation of social distancing through preschoolers makes no sense, so we questioned the logic," she said.
Karen Ohlson, the executive director of non-profit child-care program K.I.D.S. Incorporated, which operates three facilities in the city, said the provincial government had "mismanaged this crisis."
"I don't know if we will have a workforce to come back with," she said in an email.
"They feel unappreciated and disrespected by the minister, who directed her employees... to tell centres they can receive operating funding only if they open for emergency workers, then when caught off guard by the pushback, changed her mind and sent out a new communication."
A spokesperson for Manitoba Families emphasized that "all licensed centres will continue to receive their operating grants and subsidies" and said more than 350 child-care locations in the province have indicated they will continue to provide services.
Stefanson's announced plan also encourages daycare centres to reimburse prepaid fees to parents, a suggestion both Kostiuk and Ohlson said puts an unfair pressure on facilities.
"If I give back the money right now, and I still have to pay rent and utilities and insurance and pensions and everything’s still coming out, what would they have to return to?" Kostiuk said.
"If we do that we lay off employees and risk losing our amazing staff forever if they go somewhere else," Ohlson said. "You have to keep in mind how underpaid our employees are. It would be a hell of a lot easier to work at Costco and make more money."
Kostiuk sent a letter to parents requesting they not ask for refunds unless they are experiencing financial hardship, and accept credit in the future instead to help keep the centres running.
She said the response was "overwhelming."
"I actually had people step up and pay ahead — payments are not even due for another week — they’re paying me now," she said.
Kostiuk said she has already had to lay off 17 people because provincial messaging left her team in a situation where they "didn’t know what to do," and she believes the decisions being made by the Manitoba government now is part of a larger plan to shift toward private child care.
"It was a very poorly planned, poorly thought-out way of getting the ball rolling under the guise of the pandemic, to dismantle licensed child care in Manitoba," she said.
"I’m absolutely standing firm by that statement."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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Updated on Tuesday, March 24, 2020 at 5:28 PM CDT: Updated copy
9:21 PM: corrects spelling of name