Meet an Ontario family who say they’re out of options for child care

Megan Saunders, 34, thought she was doing everything right to secure child care early on, but now she is finding herself in an impossible situation because of her daughter’s school zone.

“I can put her in school, but I’d…lose my job because there is no before-and-after-school care available at the school,” she says.

“I have an option already available at a school that’s less than 2.5 kilometres from my house, and I’ve already spoken with the board about it. I just don’t understand why an accommodation can’t be made for our family, or frankly, any other families that are in this kind of situation.”

Saunders and her husband, from Barrie, Ont., have one daughter, aged three, who is supposed to be starting Junior Kindergarten in September.

Megan Saunders along with her husband and daughter.

Supplied by Megan Saunders

Saunders says she saw other family members’ struggles securing daycare for their children, so she thought she was being proactive, getting her on multiple waitlists when she was three months old.

Story continues below advertisement

With limited options, she was able to secure care for her then 10-month-old and then switch her over to a care centre in an elementary school when she was 18 months old.

Thinking she had found the best option close to the family’s home, Saunders says she wanted to ensure her daughter could attend the elementary school attached to the daycare to transition her into before and after school care as she aged.

The mother of one thought everything was handled when she called the Simcoe County District School Board in 2021 to ask about school zones.

At the time, she says a staff member told her that although the school in question was not in her school zone, she would be able to request a transfer based on her care needs.

“It’s not like I just came up with a plan and just went with it. I called everywhere. I verified. I thought I crossed my T’s and dotted my I’s, and that I had her all set up for child care,” she says.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world
sent to your email, as it happens.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world
sent to your email, as it happens.

Assuming all was well, Saunders says she did not worry about it again until she went to enrol her daughter for the upcoming school year.

“I went into the school and did my full registration. Then, I inquired about the transfer, and they said there was no chance of it happening.”

Story continues below advertisement

After finding this out, she went to the local YMCA location, which provided care for the elementary school her daughter was supposed to attend, but she found out there was a long waitlist.

Karen Pulla, vice president of Health, Wellness and Community Impact at the YMCA of Simcoe Muskoka, says that at the school Saunders’ daughter is supposed to attend, there are 130 families on the wait list for before and after-school care.

“In our region, families are currently experiencing a high demand for licensed child care with a limited number of spaces available.  This is reflected in our current waitlist numbers across the YMCA of Simcoe Muskoka,” Pulla says. “Waitlists are monitored regularly, and spaces are offered to families as soon as they become available. However, the demand consistently outpaces the availability of spaces.”

Click to play video: 'Toronto school boards say they’re struggling to build urgently needed daycares'

Toronto school boards say they’re struggling to build urgently needed daycares

Saunders then returned to the school board to push for an exemption, escalating the issue from the trustees to the board’s superintendent.

Story continues below advertisement

The Simcoe County District School Board’s school attendance area policy states that “in unusual and extreme circumstances such as issues with a the safe use of a facility, the Superintendent of Business and Facility Services, in consultation with the Director of Education, may direct students within a school attendance area to attend an alternate school and forthwith advise the public and the Board of Trustees on the decision and the reasons thereof.”

In a statement, the Simcoe County District School Board says that while it can not comment on individual matters to protect students’ privacy, before and after-school programs in SCDSB schools are managed by qualified third-party providers, and the board is not involved.

The board did say exemptions in the attendance policy are based on when a school is deemed unsafe for students to attend, such as a lack of space due to fire, flood, or other facility issues.

“While we understand that these decisions can be difficult for families to understand, the majority of our schools are closed to out-of-area attendance, and the policy exists to ensure consistency across the board when managing these types of requests, which are quite common,” the statement reads.

Additionally, the board said they are currently overcapacity by around 4,300 students due to population growth.

But Saunders says that without help, and her current daycare only offering before-and-after-school care past the age of four, she is out of options.

Story continues below advertisement

“I won’t be able to keep my job and bring her to school, and now I’m going to have to look into paying for either extremely expensive care options,” Saunders says. “If it comes down to it, one of us just might have to stay home with her because we can’t afford it, but then how long do we have a home for that we can stay home with her.”

But Barrie families are not the only ones struggling. The waitlist for daycare spaces has ballooned across the province as the $10-a-day program is rolled out.

Communities like Kawartha Lakes are seeing wait lists almost double to 6.4 years when the program started in early 2022, while others like the Region of Waterloo saw a 115 per cent increase in the number of children on the wait list when the program started.

Even in the nation’s capital, Ottawa, waitlists have increased by 41 percent with almost half past the date they needed the childcare to start.

The centralized waitlists largely involve child care operators that are part of the national program, as 92 per cent across the province have opted into the $10-a-day system.

Government officials have warned the province could be short 8,500 early childhood educators (ECEs) by 2026, the year Ontario aims to have created 86,000 new spaces.

Story continues below advertisement

Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced a wage increase late last year for ECEs, which will raise starting wages from one of the lowest in Canada to one of the highest.

The promise of 86,000 child care spaces includes ones created since 2019. Ontario has seen more than 41,000 spots added since then, Lecce said, though his office said not all of those are in centres that are part of the $10-a-day program.

Global News reached out to the Ministry of Education for comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.

— With files from The Canadian Press’ Allison Jones

Leave a Comment