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How to navigate the long childcare waitlist in Waterloo Region

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Parents have been eagerly awaiting the national $10-a-day childcare program but, two years after the announcement, we’re still waiting for that ambitious plan to become a reality.

Providers that signed up for the plan, however, have had a decrease in their childcare costs.

In the Region of Waterloo, rates are now about half of what they were a few years ago. The average is now between $24 and $32 a day, depending on the age of the child.

Ontario signed on to the Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care (CWELLC) plan back in the spring of 2022, promising a gradual rate reduction. The goal was to drop to around $10-a-day by 2026.

The Ministry of Education said they’re still on track to reach the goal by March 2026.

When CWELCC was initially announced, providers had to opt-in to the program by November 2022. In Waterloo Region, all but three childcare centres signed up.

While some daycares in other communities have warned they may have to close or leave the program to remain sustainable, the director of children’s services for the Region of Waterloo said they’re addressing the challenges.

“We've been working closely with [the centres] to help them, to make sure that they can remain viable until we reach the space where we have a new funding formula from the province that we can implement, that will truly cover the costs,” Barb Cardow said.

None of the centres in Waterloo Region that signed up to participate in the plan back in 2022 have dropped out.

Why are there waitlists?

The promise of cheaper childcare means waitlists have grown longer.

“There are 6,000 children, [aged] zero to four, who are waiting, what we say imminently, for a childcare space,” explained Cardow. “[That means] they need a childcare space within the next three months. And, as you can well imagine, demand has increased significantly, making it very difficult to find a childcare space.”

It’s also something Lori Prospero, the CEO of RisingOaks Early Learning, has seen firsthand.

“When the national program was announced, the waiting list skyrocketed,” she explained. “For example, one of our locations, our centre at Oak Creek, has 1,300 children on the waiting list. So we would have 10 infant spaces, and there’s 529 children waiting for those spaces.”

Sandra Woodward is one of the parents hoping to get a licensed spot for her son before she has to return to work. She signed up on OneList, Waterloo Region’s official childcare waitlist, while still pregnant. Her son Lucas is now 8-months-old.

“I signed up for six different daycares, but there’s no guarantee that I’m going to get a spot by the time he’s 18-months-old,” she told CTV News.

Woodward added that her backup plan is to hire a nanny, but that options comes at a much higher cost, which is already impacting her family’s budget.

“My husband and I are holding off any major renovations, no vacation, like we’re budgeting for the worst case scenario,” Woodward explained. 

Tips for your childcare search

Finding childcare can feel overwhelming at times, as demand often outweighs what is currently available.

There are, however, some things parents and caregivers can do while they’re waiting to land a spot at a childcare centre.

Don’t be deterred by the waitlist

There may be thousands of names on local childcare waitlists, but that doesn’t mean the parents and caregivers ahead of you will take available openings.

Many childcare operators tell Cardow that when they actually go to fill a spot at their centre, they often have to call names further down the list.

“That 6,000 is a really big number,” she explained. “But I think we could hypothesize that maybe some of those families aren't necessarily looking right away, but they know that there's a lack of space so they put the name on the waitlist so that when they do need a space, they can respond.”

Sign up early

Parents and caregivers can get on the waitlist for licensed childcare providers by signing up to OneList Waterloo Region.

Expectant parents can also apply using their due date.

“Get your name on OneList as soon as possible,” Cardow advised. “Put your name on the maximum number of centres that are on the list, which you can make seven selections.”

“When parents sign up to the OneList, they get an email automatically back from the centre and that’ll give them more information about the process,” Prospero explained. “Pay attention to the details that are in that email. It will often say what the wait time might potentially be.”

Don’t wait for a call

Once you’re on childcare waitlists, Cardow said it pays to be proactive.

“Don’t wait for the centres to call you. I would recommend you call centers and ask them about your status, get more information about what's available,” she explained. “Maybe through that call you will learn that that particular centre has an extensively long waitlist and there's very little chance you're ever going to get in and you might want to consider another centre that might have a shorter waitlist.”

Prospero also suggested touching base with your desired childcare centre.

“Feel free to check in, if you’re getting close, within three months of needing to go back to work, or needing to have that care,” she said. “That’s a good opportunity to check in and see what the likelihood is at that point.”

But that doesn’t mean your child, or children, are guaranteed to get in sooner.

“Lots of families have told us that they’re hearing that they have to call and email and show up all the time, that actually doesn’t make a difference unfortunately,” Prospero said. “The list is what it is.”

Be flexible and make a backup plan

Cardow said parents should being as flexible as possible when trying to land a spot.

“Some parents may need full-time care, but they take a part-time space to start,” she explained. “So at least they get into a centre and then they make alternate arrangements for the other days.”

“You have to be prepared that it may not work out,” Prospero added. “Look at the other alternatives that you have. Is there any family that can support you? If homecare wasn’t something that was on your radar at first, it’s a really good alternative that you should look at to see if you can get something to tide you over.”  

Be an advocate

Be your own childcare champion.

“We spend a lot of time talking to parents about advocacy and suggesting they might want to reach out to their local members of provincial parliament or members of parliament to advocate for more spaces and more funding for the program so we can expand faster,” Prospero said.

She feels the government needs to invest in the workforce in order to truly create growth in the childcare sector. She points to other provinces like New Brunswick, PEI, Alberta and Manitoba, where it appears to be working.

“They're investing and they create a wage scale for educators and really drive up those compensation pieces, then they're able to expand the system faster, which then supports children and families,” Prospero explained.

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