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Early childcare workers meet amidst growing uncertainty

IMAGE. Supplied by the Fort McMurray Early Years Coalition/Facebook.

Local childcare operators and workers, and licensed day home caregivers meet for the Early Learning and Child Care Conference.

Conference committee member Janet Huffman said the conference features presenters from Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and local professionals.

“It’s an opportunity for people who work in child care, whether they’re working in a licensed childcare centre, an approved day-home, [or] anybody who is running a private babysitting service out of their home to come together for professional development.”

The annual conference is already in its 12th year.

She said the event gives workers the opportunity to connect with other professionals, learn new strategies, and empower groups to meet the developmental needs of children.

Prior to its inception, Huffman said workers in Wood Buffalo had difficulty getting the right training.

“There was no professional development up here for them. You had to go to Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge, and we can’t close childcare. Imagine what would happen if every licensed childcare space in Fort McMurray was closed for a day: That would have a huge ripple effect on families.”

Huffman said they expect more than 200 early learning and childcare professionals from Alberta and B.C. to participate.

Early childhood educators will meet at the Quality Hotel in Gregoire.

Government funding

The Alberta government announced on Jan. 16, 2020, it would extend funding for some programs through the Early Learning and Child Care Grant.

Started by the previous NDP government in April 2017, the end date for the first phase of the so-called “25-dollar-a-day” program was in March 2020.

The new end date is now June 2020.

Anzac’s Willow Lake Tiny Tots Society is one of the 22 operations in the first phase.

MyMcMurray contacted the daycare in Anzac for a comment.

Huffman said the $25 was a significant reduction in fees, in particular in Wood Buffalo.

For example, parents with two children in the first phase of the program would go from spending $2600-2700 per month to potentially $1100-1300.

However, Huffman added the government provided supports for the participating childcare provider like the one in Anzac.

“Staff were trained in the Alberta Early Learning Curriculum Flight, as well as that you were given a pedagogical partner to support your entire team, [and] all of those teams were given tools, strategies, and supports to offer a more inclusive environment for children with special needs.”

Another 100 programs across Alberta joined in the affordable childcare program.

In phase two are the Fort McMurray Boys and Girls Club (FMBGC), Children First: Community Child Care in Eagle Ridge, and YMCA Birchwood.

Funding for phase two ends in March 2021.

Although it was a pilot project, Huffman said there is concern among providers across the region and Alberta about what comes next.

“I think where the frustration is there is no [clarity] of where it was going next. Pilot projects would gather the information, and we haven’t’ been given any information to know where that childcare stream is going to go next.”

Huffman added operators are uncertain about the next bilateral agreement between Alberta and the federal government.

“Is it going to be in reduced fees, staff qualifications and education? Where are we going to find a balance in quality childcare and affordable childcare?”

There are an estimated 2500 licensed child care spaces in Alberta.

Looking local

Meanwhile, the demand for childcare in the region is on the rise.

Huffman, who is a member of the Fort McMurray Early Years Coalition, said the childcare scene in Fort McMurray almost doubled the number of licensed childcare spaces since the 2016 wildfire.

Although finding a space may be a challenge, there may be some inflation when it comes to waitlists.

“A lot of people will be on three, four, or five waitlists. Your waitlist may look really big, but once they [find] a centre, parents won’t call the other centres and say ‘take me off your list’.”

Huffman added there are unlicensed private childcare providers throughout Alberta that add to the competition for spaces.

Ultimately, she said it’s about ensuring support for children.

Early childhood educators and the school divisions are unclear what the future holds with the proposed cuts.

“The majority of a child’s brain development, between 72-75 per cent, happens within the first 2000 days. Yet we’re pulling money from the most important years of those children’s lives.”

She said the Fort McMurray Early Years Coalition and the family resource centre, The Hub, lost their grant funding.

However, The Hub previously announced they would apply for funding in a new provincial model.

The Early Learning and Child Care Conference takes place at the Quality Hotel in Gregoire on Jan. 25, 2020, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.