Toronto families are scrambling to secure after-school care in a city that already offers few options as the Ontario government enforces new rules that require recreation programs to limit the number of days they accept students.
Close to 100 families with children attending an after-school program at Sprouts Growing Bodies and Minds, a facility in the city's east-end, were told over the weekend that the government would only allow their children to be there three times a week, not five. They were given a week's notice to find child care to fill the remaining two days.
The Liberal government initially defended its actions, with a spokeswoman for Indira Naidoo-Harris, the minister responsible for child care, saying in a statement that recreation programs are "typically episodic and short in duration." If a program provides after-school care everyday for children as young as four, it would need to be a licensed daycare. But on Tuesday evening, after receiving a letter signed by more than 70 parents, the Ministry of Education said it would extend the compliance deadline and work with Sprouts to find a solution that avoids disrupting families.
The problem, however, is not limited to Sprouts. Several after-school-care providers say the new rules, which have been phased in over the past two years and took effect this fall, are confusing and could cause upheaval for hundreds of parents and children already more than two months into the school year. One Toronto dance studio said it stopped offering after-school care this fall, unsure what impact the new rules would have on its program. The Ministry of Education has so far this fall issued 10 compliance orders to facilities, saying they were in contravention of legislation.
"It feels really wrong to have the government come in and tell you what you are able to choose for your child for an after-school program. They just came in with no warning … and it feels like a government that doesn't really understand or support a working family," said Myriam Tawadros, who has a five-year-old daughter in the after-school program at Sprouts.
New provincial rules this fall expanded the duty of school boards to provide before- and after-school programs for children in kindergarten up to Grade 6 – changes that came with a strict deadline and no financial supports. The Toronto District School Board turned to licensed child-care operators, many of whom were already at capacity with infants, toddlers and kindergartners.
The government also limited authorized recreation providers, which included Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada, to care for children 6 and older. Recreation providers that take all children including those younger than 6, as Sprouts does, believed they were exempt because they teach specific classes, but are now being told by the government to limit their programs to three days a week for two hours a day per child.
The Liberals began rolling out changes to the rules around child care after two-year-old Eva Ravikovich died in a hot car in 2013 outside of her unlicensed daycare in Vaughan, Ont. The daycare owner pleaded guilty to criminal negligence causing death. Eva's death brought heightened scrutiny to Ontario's child-care system.
"We know that parents often rely on before- and after-school care to accommodate their work schedules and we are committed to ensuring that children in care are in a safe and healthy environment," a spokeswoman for Ms. Naidoo-Harris said.
Emily Pengelly, co-owner at Sprouts, said she understands the government wants to keep children safe. But, "they should be looking at the merits of the businesses out there," she added. Children in the Sprouts program, she said, have access to a variety of classes, including dance, visual arts, robotics, cooking and martial arts. Staff at Sprouts pick up children from three nearby schools. Students from the French school board are bused in after school.
The facility takes children of all ages because there's a natural progression in dance class, for example, where three-year-olds come during the day and keep accessing the program as they get older, Ms. Pengelly said.
"I'm being penalized for being different," she said. "[The ministry] is telling parents that they can't choose who teaches their kids how to tap dance or how to cook or how to learn Lego robotics. We're being punished because we offer programs across a broad spectrum."
Sprouts was inspected by the Ministry of Education in September and did not hear back, Ms. Pengelly said. A government spokeswoman said the compliance order was issued to Sprouts this month to reduce the number of children in its after-school program following a complaint and an inspection.
"I'm very surprised that the ministry would come and, without any really clear rationale, make the case that is okay for the children to be there three days a week but not five," Ms. Tawadros said. "That seems illogical to me."
One nearby facility, the Leslieville School of Dance, shuttered its after-school program this fall, saying that the new rules were too confusing and it didn't want to disrupt families who rely on after-school care.
Elizabeth Snell, owners of Artists' Play, a dance studio in the city's east end, received the same compliance order as Sprouts this fall. She is appealing the government's decision, saying she doesn't operate a daycare that needs to be licensed, but rather a dance school.
"Absolutely let's make sure that children are safe," she said. "But what they're doing is they're putting everyone into a panic mode. I don't know why there isn't a middle ground."
Winnie Standish, co-owner at oaks 'n acorns, an activity studio on Danforth Avenue, said she runs an after-school program only three days a week, although parents would prefer their children be picked up from school every day. The centre started an after-school program last school year for two days a week and it was popular. Daycares in the area have long wait lists.
When Ms. Standish looked to expand the program to five days this fall, she was faced with the new rules and had to settle for a limited number of days.
"I don't know how people do it. You can't afford child care for before and after-school, if you're even lucky enough to get a spot. And now they're taking away the alternative," Ms. Standish said. "We provide a safe facility and we feel that it should be up to parents to decide whether or not they trust us and the facility."