Nova Scotia’s Liberal government is pushing ahead with its universal pre-primary program launched last fall, with another 130 new classes slated to open in September.
The expansion was announced Wednesday by Premier Stephen McNeil and Education Minister Zach Churchill in a pre-primary class at Dartmouth’s Harbourview Elementary School.
The new classes are to be opened in 84 schools in 65 communities across the province. A class will also be offered in Kings County through a pilot project with a licensed child care provider.
“This will take our investment of originally $6 million to an additional $24 million,” McNeil said. “It will mean almost half of our school communities will be committed to by this time next year.”
The program is to be introduced across the province by 2020 at a cost of $49.9 million a year. Last September 54 classes were opened in 45 schools as the program was launched.
The latest announcement would bring the total to 184 classes in 129 schools.
Churchill said the expansion would see early childhood spaces offered to as many as 2,600 children and require 250 new early childhood educators. He said new classes would also be offered by the province’s Acadian school board.
He said it’s likely there will be more collaboration with existing licensed providers in the future.
“There are communities where there are not spaces in schools,” said Churchill. “Our ideal is to provide space in schools because that helps with the transition into the academic learning environment from the play-based environment.”
The pre-primary program was a key campaign promise during last spring’s election campaign. But the speedy rollout of the program has been criticized by political foes and those already operating in the sector who contend they will be hurt by a loss of children and qualified staff.
Doubts were also raised on whether the province would find enough early childhood educators to staff the new classes.
“We do believe we have the labour market here to fill these positions,” said Churchill, who added that the province is also working on a long-term recruitment strategy.
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He said Nova Scotia currently has 2,700 registered early childhood educators with 1,700 employed in regulated child care.
Out of 389 regulated child care providers, Churchill said to date three have indicated that they are either closing temporarily or permanently.
“I do expect that losing four-year-olds from their market will create pressures but we are working with them to help them adapt,” he said.
Churchill pointed to an announcement Tuesday of $8.9 million to create 1,000 new regulated child-care spaces across the province as part of an effort to help private and not-for-profit operators.
The funding comes from a $35-million deal with Ottawa aimed at making care more affordable.
The breakdown includes $6.9 million to create 500 spaces in 90 home-based regulated settings, while another 500 spaces will be part of 15 new regulated child-care centres.
The remaining $2 million has been designated for a one-time grant in 2018-19 to help existing centres convert their spaces.
There is also a subsidy of $4 per head for regulated centres and $2 for family home daycares.