Episode 205 – The COVID-19 pandemic has forced governments all over the world to rethink how to reopen the labor force and economy and how childcare services fits into the picture. In this episode, we interview Morna Ballantyne, Executive Director of Child Care Now in Canada. We talk about how conversations around childcare have changed because of the crisis and how the field will be impacted as different governments plan on reopening non-essential businesses.
It’s really important that governments make childcare a pillar of the reconstruction of Canada. And that’s what we’re arguing for and that’s what we’re making representations to government now about, to really make it a centerpiece. And it’s going to transform Canada.
Morna, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you very much. Great to be here!
It’s great to have you back again. It’s been a couple of years since we had you on the show. Time flies but we’re delighted to have you back. To our audience: We have on the show today Morna Ballantyne. She’s the executive director of Child Care Now in Canada. And we’re delighted to talk to her today because support for childcare and early-childhood education has never been so important as it is right now, arguably – I’ll make that statement, at least from my end.
But [we are] keen to hear from you, Morna, in terms of the conversations that are happening around support for childcare as such an important service among the COVID-19 world we’re living in and getting back to some new normal, as we’re calling it.
So, before we get into that, for those of us who have not heard any of our previous podcasts, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and how you got involved in childcare and in this role as executive director of Child Care Now.
Sure. Well, I got involved in the whole issue of early-childhood education and childcare as a parent. Actually, probably my first involvement was when I was pregnant with my first child because everybody I ran into – now, this was 35 years ago now – everybody I ran into who had had a child or knew of people who had children, their first question to me is, “Are you planning to keep working, stay in the paid labor force?” And I said, “Well, yeah, absolutely. That’s my intention. My mother worked and I’m proposing to continue to work for her, certainly for a paycheck.”
And they said, “Well, that’s going to be really tricky, you know?” And I said, “Well, I’m not sure about that. I’m entitled to maternity leave of, at that time, it was 17 weeks. So, I’m proposing to take my maternity leave. And then I’m going to find some daycare and go back to work.”
And they said, “It’s not that easy.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And they said, “Well, it’s not that easy to find daycare.” So, this was back in the mid-80s. And I discovered, sure enough, that it was almost impossible. It was impossible to find a childcare space anywhere in the city – and I lived at that time in Ottawa, Canada’s national capital. And it was incredibly expensive. So, even in the mid-80s, I found out that I was going to have to pay about $1,200 a month to keep my infant son in daycare.
So, I started… I was intrigued by this. Why is it so hard to find a daycare spot? If my child was school age, it wouldn’t be an issue and it would be free. So, why is that not the case for younger children? Why do governments and wider people not considered early-childhood education to be the same as public education?
So, that’s when I got involved. I started reading, started advocating for change and I’ve been doing that now ever since. And now I’m a grandmother of a three-year-old and my daughter-in-law is expecting twins. And interestingly enough, of course, as many people could imagine, my son and his partner are going through exactly what I went through: trying to figure out how to afford childcare, how to get it. And by the way, it’s particularly challenging if you have twins on the way.
I can imagine!
So, that’s my story.
Yeah, as a parent in Toronto trying to find childcare, I know just how painfully difficult that could be. But congratulations!
Yeah, very exciting!
That is very exciting. So, your work at Child Care Now is very important work. Tell us a little bit about the work that you’re doing at Child Care Now and how that work has been impacted by this global pandemic.
Our organization was founded in 1982. It’s a national organization in Canada and we really are an umbrella organization for parents, for early-childhood educators and really bring together anybody who, for whatever reason, is concerned about the quality of early-childhood education, worried about making sure that programs are accessible, affordable and inclusive.
And we work primarily at the national level in Canada. In Canada, of course, it’s a federated country. So, we have a federal government and provincial and territorial governments. And the focus of our organization has been at the federal level. Since 1982 what we have been advocating is for the federal government of Canada to play a leadership role in working with the provinces and territories to build a publicly-managed, publicly-funded system of early-childhood education for Canada, throughout Canada, so that if you’re a parent, no matter where you live, no matter what your needs are, no matter what your household income, you have access to the highest quality care possible.
And so I kind of mentioned this at the beginning of the podcast, but access to Child Care Now is more important than ever because we need to reopen the economy and get parents back to work in a way that’s obviously safe and has people’s health and safety in front of mind. Why or how are things different for Child Care Now in this current environment?
Yeah, well, as you said at the start, one of the things that I think is really different is so many people are talking about childcare. A lot of governments are talking about childcare; members of different legislatures at all levels are talking about childcare; and most importantly, people – mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, everybody – is talking about childcare.
And they’re talking about childcare because through COVID, of course, schools have been shut down, childcare, licensed childcare centers or home-based providers have had to shut down their services. And also a lot of the people who are providing informal and unregulated childcare have not been able to do so through COVID because of physical distancing, because of concerns around infections and for a whole variety of reasons.
And so parents without childcare, many of them have found themselves having to continue to work, either because they’ve been able to continue with their job but from home and or because they’ve been performing critical services that governments have deemed critical and so they’ve had to go into the workplace to perform those duties.
So, these parents, whether they’re working from home or having to go to a workplace, have done so without any childcare supports at all. And it’s really, dramatically brought home to all of us how impossible it is to actually work, do paid work [and] get a paycheck for work if there isn’t childcare support available.
And the informal childcare services that so many families in Canada and many other countries have depended on – neighbors or grandparents and so forth – because those have also fallen apart through COVID, people are saying, “Oh, this really doesn’t work. This dependence on informal arrangements, you just can’t do that. You can’t really rely on informal services, even in good times.”
And so more and more people are talking about childcare. They’re talking about, “What are the solutions?” And more and more, they’re turning to government and saying to governments, “You have to help.”
And the other thing that’s been interesting through COVID and I think that’s has been making a huge impact on the whole childcare debate is that governments – certainly in Canada and I think this is true for many countries around the world – governments have stepped up in ways that they hadn’t before. In Canada, we’ve seen the federal government make changes, for example, to employment insurance programs to make employment insurance more available to more people, making changes that in the past they’ve told us were unaffordable or couldn’t be done.
But within days of the pandemic, those changes got made. Billions of dollars have been spent in the last number of weeks to help people out. And governments have said, “Our first priority, people are our first priority. Health and safety is our first priority.”
And I think that that’s now put the whole question of childcare in a whole different light. So, whereas we were always told it would be too expensive for a government to actually build a childcare system, they’re spending more money now, and have in the last few weeks, than it would cost to actually build a system.
So, I think all of this has really contributed to a completely different discourse around childcare than we were engaged in and hearing even three months ago.
Yeah, it’s interesting how a crisis does that. And my understanding, through hosting the Preschool Podcast, is, for example, that World War 2 was actually sort of a critical catalyst, let’s say, to really bringing on more childcare as more women entered the workforce. And so it’ll be interesting to see what happens here in.
And this is something, though, that, on the Podcast and everywhere in early-childhood education, we’ve been screaming from the rooftops about how important early-childhood education is. And usually we feel like it’s falling on deaf ears. But to your point, there’s a conversation around it now.
The question is, do you think – and are we seeing – real action now? And so you’d mentioned some of these programs that have come out, like in Canada. But are there things that are coming out that are specific to childcare? And do you think they’re going to be lasting, is the other question?
Yeah, well, the other thing that’s happening – and again, this is something that happened in other countries – is that childcare centers or childcare services, wherever they’re offered – whether they’re in centers or in in people’s homes – they were shut down for health and safety reasons.
But then there was a problem because we didn’t need people working to perform critical services. Like, frontline health care workers had to keep working to help deal with the pandemic. Grocery clerks had to keep working to make sure that the shelves were stocked in grocery stores. Transit drivers, transit workers had to keep working. So, there are a whole bunch of people that had to keep working. But the childcare centers and the schools were closed.
And so what governments did, even at the height of COVID and it [are] still doing at this moment in Canada because we haven’t completely reopened yet – some countries have reopened much more than Canada has. But what governments did is say, “We’re actually going to provide childcare services for those workers.”
So, very much in the same way that they did during the Second World War in Canada, where governments, because they had to keep production going and because so many women had to actually go and keep production going, whether it [was] factories or the farms, what governments did then is provided free, universal childcare. And during the COVID crisis in Canada, provincial governments and territory governments also set up emergency childcare services. And many of them offered those services at no fees.
And the other thing is that they paid quite a lot of attention to ensure that those services were as safe as possible. And that meant making sure that the group sizes of the children were not too large, so that there could still be good quality of care even through a pandemic crisis.
And the other thing they did is they realized, “People have to work in these childcare services and we’re going to have to boost the wages.” And so a number of governments actually put in measures to increase the salaries and benefits of those who were working in childcare through the COVID crisis.
So, what that says to me is that governments recognize very well that if you need people to go into the paid labor force, you’re going to have to provide them support. And a key support is childcare. You have to make sure that the childcare is properly staffed; you have to make sure that those working in childcare are paid decently so that you can attract them and keep them providing those services; and you have to make sure it’s affordable. And in this case, they did it. They made sure that it was actually free.
And what governments are now turning their minds to is, “How do we get the economy going?” And they know that the way to get the economy going is they’re going to have to bring people back to work. And if women particularly are going to go back to work, they’re going to need support. And the key support that they’re going to need is childcare services.
So, we, I think, are going to be seeing – in Canada, anyway – a big conversation that will take place between the federal and provincial and territorial governments about, what can the different government do together to make sure that the childcare crisis that people were experiencing through COVID – and that have already been experiencing before COVID – that that crisis is dealt with and has to be dealt with as part of the economic recovery.
That’s interesting. And I understand [that] at Child Care Now, you did a survey of childcare providers. Can you share any of their results or trends or any information coming out of that?
Well, we don’t have the final results to share. But I can tell you some of what we know from the survey. And also because we’d been doing before doing the formal survey, we had so many conversations with childcare providers.
So, one of the things, of course, [that] has happened during COVID is that the services had to shut down. And many of these services are reliant on fees, on parent fees, to be able to pay the bills. So, when the services were shut down, they could no longer charge parent fees for services that they could no longer provide and therefore no longer had money to pay the bills.
And so a lot of the childcare providers ended up having to lay off staff and shutter their doors, shutter their centers. And a number of them, of course, had to pay rent and were not in a position to be able to pay rent.
So, what we know is that providers of childcare, whether they’re licensed or not licensed, whether they’re center-based providers or whether they provide childcare services from their homes, they are all in an incredibly precarious position right now. To reopen, they’re going to have to get staff back in to work in childcare. They’re going to have to find a way to pay the bills. And, of course, to reopen safely, there’s going to be all kinds of additional costs.
Things are going to have to be kept incredibly clean, not just cleaning in the morning and cleaning at night when the kids when kids aren’t there. They’re going to have to be cleaning throughout today. There’s going to have to be screening; there’s going to have to be very close monitoring of the staff health, of the children’s health, health of the parents.
We know that one of the ways to keep services safe is to make sure that the number of children, the groups of children are small. That’s going to mean that a lot of the childcare centers, to be able to provide safe service, will not be able to operate at full capacity. And that, again, means a reduction in revenue from fees and also from government because those that do receive government funding, that funding might very well be reduced if the number of children in the program is reduced.
So, these are all things that the providers are thinking about and worried about. And again, these things are not going to be resolved through individual action. The providers, they’re really going to need the support of government to be able to reopen safely.
And as we go through this process of reopening childcare programs, there’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of unknowns. What advice can you provide to providers out there who are trying to navigate this situation they’re in right now?
Well, my first bit of advice is, talk to others. As I just finished saying, it is extremely difficult for providers to take on the big problems that they’re going to be facing on their own. And they shouldn’t be expected to. So, providers are, in Canada anyway, most are connected to each other through associations that represent the early-childhood education sector. Stay in very close touch with those associations.
Make sure that your concerns are well known and well understood by elected representatives. And work together for some good collective solutions which involve system change. I think it’s really going to be a mistake to just go back or try to go back to the way things were before COFID because things before COFID were not that great for childcare providers or for parents who have to pay really high fees.
My own situation – and that of my friends a generation later – finding, getting access to childcare is difficult. Paying for it is difficult. Wages and benefits for those who work in childcare are still way too low. That was the old normal. We want a completely new normal. And that’s going to mean putting a lot of pressure on governments to make big change and long-term change.
We not going to be able to fix the problems with bandages. We really need to think of coming out of COVID being an opportunity to really reconstruct a childcare system that works – works for children, most importantly, works for parents and works for those who are trying to provide the service under very difficult circumstances and also that works in the economy and works for the country.
And so we know in Canada, the federal government and other governments are talking about, “How are we going to get the economy moving? Where should we be spending our money? What needs to happen to get business back up and to get people working?”
And one of the groups, the demographics that have been hit so hard through COVID is women. Women more than men have suffered higher death rates, higher rates of infection in part because they’ve gone through, they’ve been exposed more greatly since they’ve been working in those jobs in health care, long term care, acute care, in the service sector that is had to keep going through the pandemic. It’s mostly women who work in that sector.
So, they have suffered higher rates of infection. But also women have ended up losing work, losing their jobs through the pandemic and in large part because they’ve had to go home to look after children. And the stats show that it’s more likely to be the mother that has ended up having to give up a job to look after the kids during the pandemic than it is the father.
In part that’s because fathers still on average make more, earn more than mothers. So, if you have to forfeit one income and one parent has to stay at home, then it’s more likely to be the woman that stays at home and the father keeps working. But after the pandemic, women have to get back into the paid labor force. And the economy needs it and households need it.
Households are really dependent on earnings of mothers. So, for all those reasons, it’s really important that governments make childcare a pillar of the reconstruction of Canada. And that’s what we’re arguing for. And that’s we’re making representations to government about to really make it a centerpiece. And it’s going to transform Canada.
Yeah, and it’s one of those things where we all know in the early-childhood education space that the future of our children is so important and the learning and development is so important. But it’s like, even if you don’t understand that, just as an essential service to get the economy going and for the economy to run effectively, you need childcare. So, it’s such an important point.
And I’m glad that you’re there at the helm in Canada to help reiterate that point, advocate on that point. Morna, if our listeners want to learn more about your work at Child Care Now or get in touch with you, where can they go to get more information?
Well, we have a website, that’s probably the easiest place to go. And our website is www.TimeForChildCare.ca. You can also find us on Twitter at @Child_Care_Now. And we also have a Facebook page. And we would really love it for listeners to connect with us through social media and in any other way – phone, write. And as I said, we are an umbrella organization. We work with provincial organizations and territorial organizations and many other groups. So, we’d be delighted for listeners to get in touch.
Wonderful. Morna, thank you so much for all the work you’re doing for childcare and early-childhood education in Canada. And thank you for joining us today on the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you so much for having me!