Pandemic restrictions in the territory’s capital city have increased demand for childcare services, putting providers under increased strain and pushing some staff toward the brink.
While some providers worry about going out of business and burned-out staff consider leaving the profession, parents face a battle to find any childcare options at all — a chronic problem now exacerbated by capacity restrictions.
Pim Wangyao runs Kids Care Day Home in Yellowknife. She says her income has significantly decreased.
“I don’t know how I can survive this,” Wangyao told Cabin Radio.
Bigger childcare providers in the city are also worried about their financial situation.
“We’re losing a lot,” said YWCA NWT’s executive director, Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay.
The organization stopped running after-school childcare programs when schools closed on September 14. Dumbuya-Sesay says keeping staff paid so they don’t look for other employment is a considerable challenge.
“We’re trying to find other ways to make sure that we can still pay our staff … because if we lose our staff then technically, when school reopens, we don’t have people, so we may not be able to run the program,” she said.
Dumbuya-Sesay said YWCA NWT would open full-day childcare to help parents out, like it did last year, if only the organization knew how long school closures would last.
“It would have been ideal if the government said, ‘Well, we’re shutting down schools for a month,’ because there’s a lot of work that goes into opening the space and providing childcare,” she said.
“If we have a heads-up and enough notice, and know how long the schools will be closed for, we’ll then be better prepared to do that.”
Last week, Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola said schools in the Yellowknife area would not reopen any time soon.
One Yellowknife daycare worker, who requested anonymity as their employer had not authorized them to speak, described frustration that childcare services remained open for essential workers but with little indication that additional government help was on the way.
The worker said the NWT’s vaccination rollout earlier this year also made them feel undervalued. “Educators were the last priority group,” they said, “the same day they opened it up to the public.”
Burnout from continual operation in difficult circumstances, working with an unvaccinated population, and low pay compared to many NWT jobs has left some childcare workers in a difficult position.
“I love my job. I’m passionate about it. It’s my profession, I went to school for it,” said the daycare worker, describing others who had already chosen to leave.
“I don’t want to just give up on that. But these are really challenging parts of it.”
No spaces, no supports
As childcare providers look to the government for more support in the face of an evolving outbreak and new pandemic restrictions, parents are increasingly struggling to find childcare in a city that had a shortage prior to the pandemic.
The NWT’s education minister, RJ Simpson, addressed the lack of childcare spaces at a news conference in late September – but said there was little the territory could do in the short term.
“There are not plans to roll out a program. There just isn’t a lot of childcare available. ECE is working as an intermediary to find childcare spaces that are available,” said Simpson, referring to the acronym for the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment.
“Given the lack of childcare that is available, there are no plans for any additional supports.”
The territory does have some longer-term projects to increase capacity, though much of the focus is on smaller communities outside Yellowknife, where childcare capacity is often minimal.
As of mid-September, a department spokesperson said there were 1,144 daycare spaces in Yellowknife and Ndilǫ, including both licensed centre-based programs and family day homes.
Of those spaces, 143 are reserved for infants, 385 are for preschoolers, and 616 are “out of school,” referring to programs that run before or after school hours.
“We are always at capacity,” said Ryan Fequet, president of the Yellowknife Day Care Association.
“We have hundreds of people on our waitlist and that demand has been the same pre-pandemic and throughout the pandemic. Nothing has changed in that respect for us.”
Dumbuya-Sesay described a similar situation at YWCA NWT.
“It’s always been a challenge in terms of getting more spaces for the number of parents that need care,” she said. “Currently, for three of our schools, we have about 50 people on a waitlist.”
Daisy Siguenza, who runs Precious Little Children Day Home, said many people are looking to send their kids to a day home but, with only six spots available, she has to say no.
Pandemic public health measures in Yellowknife are at their strictest since June. Current gathering restrictions in Yellowknife, Dettah, and Ndilǫ limit indoor gatherings to immediate household members in most circumstances. The order is set to remain in effect until at least October 11, Thanksgiving Monday.
School closures, the wait for vaccines for children aged under 12 to be approved, and evolving health measures have left both parents and childcare providers struggling to navigate the territory’s current outbreak.
Yet the search for childcare could become even more arduous on the other side of the pandemic if some providers have to close.
“We do recognize there are smaller centres or day home providers that aren’t able to manage even one sickness or anything like that, and some have closed down permanently, which is very sad,” said Fequet at the Yellowknife Day Care Association, which briefly closed in September when a Covid-19 case at its centre was identified.
“That has made the overall demand probably higher in the community, for sure,” he said.
“If anything, the pandemic has showed it’s arguably the most essential service because, without kids having care during the day, parents can’t work and then society just doesn’t go on running.”