The number of children enrolled in daycare, for both pre-school and school-aged care, dropped from more than 8,000 before the pandemic to around 950 since March.
The province closed public and private childcare centres at the beginning of the pandemic but provided free childcare for essential workers. During a media briefing on Friday, Education Minister Brad Trivers said around 500 of these families took advantage of free childcare offered by the province, enrolling 950 children.
Most of these families relied on private facilities or personal support networks, such as grandparents or friends, instead of licensed childcare facilities.
"Ninety per cent of those families have made arrangements privately and we expect that will continue," said Carolyn Simpson, an early years advisor with the Department of Education.
"The vast majority are using private services such as having a friend, relative or babysitter care for their children," said Trivers.
Simpson said essential workers opted for private options because of the perceived risk of spread of coronavirus (COVID-19 strain).
“There was so much that was unknown about COVID and the impact of COVID. In those very early days, there was apprehension on the part of the family, on the part of the service deliverer," Simpson said.
"While that was a concern in the beginning, we're not hearing that as a concern right now. Centres have reached out and are filling those spaces."
On May 22, unlicensed and licensed childcare operators are slated to re-open under public health guidelines. Trivers said the number of licensed childcare centres operating at that time will increase from 22 to 155, creating an additional 1,200 childcare spaces. Childcare will be provided in groups of no more than five children and no more than 20 people will be permitted in the centres at a time.
In addition, home-based care will be allowed as well. A limit of up to seven children per home will be in place. This is also expected to create an additional 2,100 spaces.
These physical distancing measures will greatly reduce the capacity of childcare spaces on the Island.
Prior to the pandemic, there were 6,150 children enrolled in early years centres, as well as 2,296 children enrolled in school-aged care. As of May 22, the province will have capacity of around 3,300 spaces childcare and school-aged care spaces, 5,146 less than pre-pandemic.
But Trivers said it is not clear what the demand for spaces will be as of May 22.
"That really is what we're trying to determine," Trivers said.
"We don't know exactly what the demand is going to be."
Trivers urged parents to enrol online.
A $75 per week subsidy will be available to parents for each child enrolled until June 26. Parents returning to work may also be eligible for the province’s childcare subsidy program.
Trivers said parents will not lose a space in a centre if they had one before the pandemic.
As of May 22, children who are immunocompromised will not be permitted to return to licensed childcare centres unless they have written approval from a health-care practitioner. Parents of infants may still access private child care services.
Early childhood education teams will support children with special needs on a case-by-case basis.