As Edmontonians weather a fifth wave of the pandemic, the prolonged closure of many downtown offices has left daycares in the heart of the city struggling to stay open.
"I am concerned that we may have to shut our doors if we don't get help to survive," said Heather Ratsoy, owner of It's All About Kids Daycare. The daycare has been based out of the main floor of the Edmonton Journal building since 2000, when Ratsoy transitioned from manager of the centre to the owner.
At one point, she had 300 families on the waiting list for a spot because it is "right in the middle of the hub of offices."
But as COVID-19 shut down the city, parents opted to enrol their children in daycare centres closer to their new home offices. Now out of 59 available spots at It's All About Kids, only nine children are enrolled.
"Downtown is like a dead zone," Ratsoy said. "But survival is very important, so that when things get better we are there to provide the services that are needed downtown. You can say that about restaurants, about any business. But in order for people to go to work, we have to be there."
Ratsoy isn't the only one concerned — other daycare operators, politicians, and parents are sounding the alarm that a key piece of social infrastructure is at risk of collapsing if more supports aren't provided soon.
Rakhi Pancholi, the Alberta NDP critic for Children's Services, said that if daycares close, there will be a ripple effect.
"It will fall on women. It traditionally has always fallen on women to do the childcare and caregiving when they can't afford or access child care. As a working parent myself ... I deserve to be able to go to work, and access to child care is critical for that," she said.
"It's really important that we recognize that that's not just a social issue, it is an economic issue."
Amanda Yu, an Edmonton parent whose son attends Ratsoy's daycare, agrees.
"If we lose these licensed child-care spaces, the ability to recover from the pandemic will be limited, and women will bear the greatest burden," she said.
Yu sends her four-year-old to It's All About Kids, and soon her nine-month-old will also be enrolled. She has continued to bring her eldest there throughout the pandemic despite being at home on maternity leave because of the benefits her daycare offers.
"Maybe it's a stupid, romantic notion that my children can grow up in an urban environment; that the suburbs ... isn't necessarily the only place that they should experience," Yu told Taproot.
"Going to daycare in a city centre is a really good experience for them. They get to see different parts of how the world works, not just the four-by-four blocks that they live in."
It's All About Kids is one of about a dozen licensed daycares in the heart of downtown. It has typically drawn Edmontonians from various corners of the city, bringing together a diverse community of families.
"We came from different places. We looked very different from each other. And that was one of the reasons I picked that daycare — my kids were being exposed to more perspectives and more worldviews," said Yu.
A new child care agreement between the federal and provincial governments is in the midst of rolling out. It will offer more affordable child care to families, reducing fees for children not yet in kindergarten by about half to start, down to an average of $10 per day by 2026.
"We know the pandemic continues to pose challenges for child care operators, which is why we have been supporting child care facilities since the pandemic began," said Nancy Bishay, director of communications at Children's Services, in a statement to Taproot.
But while it may help drive up demand, the new subsidies won't reduce the looming overhead costs like rent and salaries that daycares are struggling to afford now. Ratsoy has been paying half of her rent, has been forced to reduce her staff from about 12 employees to two and a half, and has cut janitorial services.
"I'm looking forward to parents getting a better deal ... but this new program is not really advantageous to us. It's got no advantages whatsoever," Ratsoy said.
In addition to $165 million in pandemic relief funding for the sector, the provincial government also provided $16.5 million in funding for licensed operators participating in the agreement to help with the transition. But Ratsoy said what's really needed is continuous ongoing support from various levels of government to help her and other city-centre providers survive until workers are able to return downtown.
Anne Stevenson, city councillor for Ward O-day'min, said she'd like to see targeted wage subsidies for child care facilities, and noted that the commercial rent subsidies that were provided to other businesses during the pandemic could also be beneficial.
"Short-term solutions could be to expand our Economic Recovery and Economic Action Plan grants. Long term, we need to continue ensuring that we welcome more families downtown that can make daycares viable even in the absence of a full return to work, which is a reality that we will likely be facing even post-pandemic," Stevenson told Taproot.
NDP critic Pancholi agrees that part of revitalizing downtown Edmonton will be ensuring that there are child-care spaces available for families who want to work and live there. And she said that the responsibility to ensure that child-care centres stay afloat falls to every level of government.
"I think jurisdictionally we could look at all the different roles that each level of government plays, but ultimately, if we don't have accessible and affordable child care, that's bad for all of us," she said.
A fraught system
Child care is a complex issue. Centres are not only facing uncertainty about keeping their doors open, they're also trying to keep children safe amid rapidly rising Omicron cases. This issue alone has pushed many parents to reconsider the risk of sending their children to daycare.
Then there's the challenge of attracting and keeping educators.
"Child care has always kind of been this fraught little system. The pandemic just started pulling at the string of it. Each time something goes wrong, you just pull a little harder and it just keeps getting more threadbare," said Yu, who has been advocating for more support for daycares on behalf of parents for months.
"It starts to unravel really quickly, because it was never really woven that tightly."
As It's All About Kids operator Ratsoy considers how to move forward, she's not sure what 2022 and beyond will hold for her business.
"I wasn't (expecting) this. I was hoping that it would be better," she said.
"I cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel at all."
Header image credit: Amanda Yu