While the County of Simcoe is working to expand the number of childcare spaces and facilities throughout the region, local daycare providers are contending with “insane” wait lists that could see some of its wait-listed children reach school age before they can earn a spot in a local daycare.
Over the past year, the county created 1,100 childcare spots throughout the region, with plans to add an additional 3,000 by 2026.
Mary Ann McLennan, executive director at Orillia Central Preschool, said she recently had to close her wait list due to the amount of demand for spaces.
“Our wait lists are insane,” she said. “I closed my wait list in August of 2023 because … people were putting their children on the infant wait list that I wouldn't get to, honestly, until they were junior, senior kindergarten.”
With three locations across the city, Orillia Central Preschool offers care for infant, toddler, and preschool-aged children, with before and after school care also available for children 12 and under.
McLennan said there was a dramatic increase in demand following the federal government’s 2021 decision to introduce $10 per day childcare, on average, for families with children under six years old — a five-year plan that won’t fully come to fruition until at least 2026.
In the meantime, she said, parents are faced with lengthy wait lists at her facilities.
“I have 166 children on my infant wait list alone, and of those 166 … I'm going to say at least 40 of those people have called within the last two to three months to ensure that they were still on the wait list,” she said. “I have somebody who went on my wait list in March of 2022 for a space in January of 2024, and they’re still fifth on my list.”
Beyond the infant wait list, McLennan said she also has 186 children on preschool and 179 on childhood wait lists, and 90 children who will age out of eligibility this year that the daycare has been unable to place.
“We (put) like 160 children in our school-age program at Orchard Park for the summer camp, and we will move a lot of our preschoolers into that program so that we can open spaces and move through the wait list,” she said. “If I didn't do that, I don't know what we would do.”
County director of children services Samantha Zuercher said the municipality is committed to expanding the number of spaces and their affordability in the coming years.
“We did create the 1,100 spaces in 2023, which puts us in a strong position to continue building up child care in our communities by creating a minimum of 3,000 new spaces by 2026,” she said.
“The (Ontario government) shares our goal of building up early learning and child care in our communities and ensuring that our youngest residents have high quality child care that is available and accessible across the region," said Zuercher.
“We are currently working to solidify a few details but will be sharing that with county council as soon as we have things firmed up with our partners at the province.”
Zuercher said enrolled programs across the province are expected to reach the $10 per day target by 2026, with funding administered by the county through agreements with the federal and provincial governments.
“Enrolled programs across the province ... are expected to reach $10 (per) day child care by 2026, with additional operating grants provided directly to the licensed child-care operators,” she said.
In the meantime, she said the average cost of childcare in enrolled programs has dropped substantially in recent years, averaging $563 per month — or $26 per day — an approximately 50 per cent decrease from rates in 2020.
At West Ridge Early Education Centre, executive director Rebecca Koza said the funding model from the government is working quite well, with the funds provided sufficiently accounting for reduced childcare costs so far.
“We've been pleasantly surprised at what that model was providing us as childcare providers,” she said. “The funding is there. The families are … loving the fact that there's a discounted rate for them.”
However, space is also an issue at Koza’s facility, and she said the wait list was similarly closed last summer, only opening again for new applicants in recent weeks.
Currently, she said there are around 350 families on the wait list — an anticipated two- to three-year wait — but she also noted the picture may not be fully accurate given families often put their names on multiple wait lists.
“We don't actually have an accurate picture of how many families do need care, so I'm really pushing for someone like the county to take on a centralized … program, so we actually have a better understanding of how many families actually need care,” she said.
That said, Koza notes there is significant demand.
“We probably get 10 phone calls a day with families who are new to the area looking for care, and are just flabbergasted at what Orillia looks like when it comes to childcare,” she said.
West Ridge plans to open a second location in the near future, Koza said, but she does not anticipate it will fully meet the community’s needs.
“We're fortunate; we are opening a second location in April, so that at least provides 57 more spaces, but at the same time those will be filled from our existing wait list, so it doesn't help any new families,” she said.
Organizations interested in creating new childcare spaces through the federal program can apply on the county website.