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Squamish childcare crunch continues with crushing impact on families

Parents, educators, and leaders weigh in on where we are, where we need to be, and how to get there.

A lack of affordable childcare has been a topic on the lips of parents, caregivers, and political types for years in Squamish.

This week, The Chief set out to find out the state of things today, why the problem persists, what the challenges are and what is being done to make things better.

Parents' perspectives

Like many local parents, Amy Fenton has made difficult choices about her career and family due to the ongoing childcare crisis.

Fenton is a fourth-generation Squamish resident; her daughters, 12 years old and 16 months, are the fifth generation.

When her older daughter was a baby, Fenton lived in Kelowna and put her child into a group facility and found it was "really great."

"I personally just loved the experience, and she turned out to be such a great kid. She had such loving caregivers," Fenton said.

She wanted the same for her youngest daughter.

Larger facilities have built-in backup, so if staff is off sick or on vacation there is still care, Fenton noted, something she needs for her type of work.

She was a heavy-duty equipment operator, a career she loved.

Back in Squamish, she couldn't find the same type of care for her second child.

She went back to work for five weeks after her second maternity leave ended, with a nanny to care for her kids, but the financial side of things didn't work.

"It didn't make much sense," she said, noting because she made less than her husband, the family decided she should stay home.

Two weeks after she quit her job, she found out her daughter had a space in a local daycare, but it was too late.

The lack of options for affordable, quality childcare means that many local women like Fenton are having to choose between family and career.

"It is disheartening to have to leave a job you have worked hard for," Fenton said.

She sums up the smorgasbord of issues contributing to the childcare shortage in town as: not enough facilities, not enough early childhood educators (ECEs ), and not enough truly affordable housing.

"My biggest fight is for my girls. I want them to love this town. I want them to grow up healthy and with a sense of community and I would like everyone who has come to town to feel that same way," Fenton said. "I want all the children here to feel that sense of community and be healthy and not have any mental health issues because they have bounced around from childcare to childcare, or had to stay home with mom working at home with them — that is extremely difficult too."

Now, she hopes to go back to work part-time, but again, finding part-time care in a larger facility has proven next to impossible.

"It just feels like this issue should have been dealt with 10 years ago," Fenton said. "All the studies should have been done then and jumped on because now we need a miracle."

She would like to see a new childcare facility in each new residential development that has enough space for the number of children that will likely be living in it.

Tamlyn's story

Mom Tamlyn Smith said that even when parents have a spot in a daycare, as she did for her son earlier at YMCA Platypus Playcentre — which closed in June — there's a constant state of vigilance wondering if it is secure.

"Things can turn in a second, and, you know, I hear from so many people that it always works out and I am at the point now where that is not true. And [people] continue to say that it will and we can go on mat leave and we can expand our families, but the truth is, I would expand my family if it weren't for the childcare crisis," she said. "And I think that it drastically impedes my choices on a daily basis; how much I am able to invest in my work."

Smith notes she is "one of the lucky ones."

"I have full-time preschool and I have a two-income household. I don't have to worry about rent. There are so many positives and it is still hard for me, so I can only imagine what it is like without any of these sorts of supports that I have — and that is what keeps me motivated to keep advocating," she added.

"Yes, it has worked out for me in the grand scheme of things, but I shouldn't be in the minority."

Smith also notes what is often left out of the childcare crisis conversation is a discussion of before and after school care for school-aged kids.

She has done all the research she can to understand the local crisis and points to the inability to attract and retain educators as a huge factor.

She wrote a letter to the District asking for developers to have to incorporate into their plans affordable and subsidized housing, specifically for educators.

Jenny's story

Jenny Baker, too, worries about childcare as she prepares to go back to work after her maternity leave.

"As the mother of an 11-month-old daughter, I hoped that at the end of my maternity leave, I would be able to find suitable childcare for her. At three months pregnant, I added our unborn child to every waitlist possible and as of today, July 13, 2021, we are still without childcare for my impending return to work.," she said in a letter to District council that she shared with The Chief.

She asked the District to provide greater clarity around how it intends to improve the childcare situation in town.

"New developments are being approved all over Squamish and it isn't clear how our community will continue to support our children," she said, noting that greater transparency and information is required on new childcare centres, public school expansions and opportunities for recreational activities.

She acknowledged this isn't just a Squamish issue, but said with so many families moving into newly built developments, the situation needs to be addressed.

"What happens when the 2020 and 2021 babies get to kindergarten? Where are they going to go to school?"

"Our community needs childcare resources including facilities, recruitment and additional education opportunities to train and educate childcare educators, cost-effective housing and support to continue to offer infant care," she said.

"This August, as I should be preparing to return to work, I will be continuing to stay home to care for my daughter until our family can find a suitable childcare situation that is not only safe and cost-effective but will also nurture and support our daughter as she continues to develop," she wrote.

"I believe that the District of Squamish needs to provide more information to the community on childcare resources and advancements, advocate for childcare resources with every new development that is approved in town, and continue to show families that we are the priority as our community grows."

What do childcare providers say?

According to District staff, what the muni hears most from those who wish to set up a childcare centre in Squamish is that there are challenges with the recruitment and retention of qualified staff due to housing affordability challenges, cost of living, and historically low wages within the childcare sector, as well as finding and securing affordable space  —  both residential and commercial.

 The District's Economic Development Department recently completed an employment space viability analysis, which concluded that, due to escalating land and development costs and high demand, the viability of accessing employment space in Squamish is constrained.

This is especially challenging for childcare businesses that have specific space requirements to meet provincial regulations and standards of practice, the District said.

This research and ongoing employment space modelling will serve as an input in policy and development decisions, according to the District.

Vicki's story

Vicki Marlatt recently retired after working in daycares and preschools for 27 years.

She worked with infants and toddlers and ages three to five.  

Asked why there is such a shortage of infant and toddler spaces, she said that type of care is expensive because the ratio is one to four staff.

Care for three to five-year-olds is one to eight staff.  

"There are not a lot of spots for infants and toddlers because you need a three to five daycare to offset the cost," she said.

Marlatt said facilities lose their staff because the wages paid to early educators are too low to survive in Squamish.  

She also noted the cost of the extensive education needed to work in a childcare centre and the unpaid practicums required as other barriers.

Lisa's story

Before she left the profession, Lisa Turpin spent decades as a proud and dedicated early childhood educator, shepherding more than 400 kids through their early years.

She still calls those she cared for "her kids."

She echoes much of what other parents and other caregivers told the Chief, but she also points to a fundamental societal shift that is needed before the childcare issue can be resolved and that is that those who care for our next generations need to be valued for the work they do.

"I honestly believe we are in the crunch we are in because we haven't supported our early childhood educators enough," she said. "The early childhood educators are being considered babysitters and they are nothing — nothing."

She notes that babysitters hired for a Saturday night while the kids sleep and dog walkers often earn more than those spending the lion's share of a day educating young children.

She believes childcare needs to be wrapped in with the school system.

She also noted that larger employers could also be stepping up to provide care for their employees' kids on-site.

"It would save the employers money if the government gave the money into the business in a tax credit," she said.

"There are creative ways that ensuring our amazing little humans get looked after," she said.

 What are the stats?

The District of Squamish tracks the community childcare access rate on an annual basis.

As of September 2020, the overall access rate was 21%, or 21 spaces per 100 children aged 0 to 12.

The rate is calculated based on the number of licensed spaces and Squamish's annual population estimates by age.

There were 823 licensed spaces for a population of 4,311 children, up from 789 in 2018, an increase of 34 spaces.

"This figure is still below the additional 72 spaces per year required to improve the access rate to 30%, our identified target based on projected continued growth in the child population over the next 10 years," said Mayor Karen Elliott, in an email to The Chief.

"We know this reality is causing a lot of stress for families and disproportionately impacting women who want to return to the workforce. The District is working closely with its community partners to address this multifaceted issue."

What is the District doing about this?

"Childcare challenges are multifaceted and addressing the gap will require sustained investment by the provincial and federal governments to create spaces, train more educators, and to create a living wage for early childcare educators (ECEs)," said Mayor Karen Elliott.

"Currently, the District is focusing efforts, within the municipal toolbox we have to work with, to improve childcare access in line with the Child Care Strategy and Action Plan."

The District is seeking provincial funding in partnership with SD48 to create 36 new child care spaces at Valleycliffe Elementary School. Previous applications for this funding were unsuccessful.

 Childcare BC New Spaces Funding is also being sought that would integrate childcare facilities on municipal sites where possible and within public facilities as they are redeveloped, according to District staff.

Staff at the District also negotiate public benefits such as new child care space as a community amenity in mixed-use re-zonings. Recent examples include the Jumar re-zoning (Eagle Kids — opened in 2021 with licensing ongoing to provide up to 72 spaces); Garibaldi Springs re-zoning, which includes 12 new infant/toddler spaces in the former clubhouse coming in 2021-22; the recent Centennial Way re-zoning with Anthem Properties, which includes approximately 25 spaces. The District is also integrating child care population projections and new child care targets in new neighbourhood plans, such as in the new Loggers East Neighbourhood Plan and Crumpit Meadows and Garibaldi Estates planning processes, District staff said.

In 2021, the District will revisit the Community Amenity Contribution policy, with a goal of strengthening its guidance for childcare development and reserve funding for capital projects, grants and operating needs, staff said.

What does the District suggest for parents?

While long-term solutions are in the works, the District notes a valuable community resource is the Sea to Sky Child Care Resource and Referral (CCRR) office that co-ordinates local referrals and childcare placements and which can provide a list of child care providers, including licensed centres and licensed not-required operators. "Parents and parents-to-be should also continue to advocate with the responsible ministers at the provincial and federal levels, their MP and MLA to ensure that this issue is a priority for all levels of government in the Sea to Sky Corridor," Elliott said.

Path to universal childcare

The NDP provincial government says it is on the path to universal child care for the province.

"I know first-hand what it's like to struggle to find child care — it's one of the reasons I'm so committed to building the inclusive, universal child care system families in Squamish need," Katrina Chen, Minister of State for Child Care, told The Chief.

She said since forming government, the province has funded 145 new childcare spaces in Squamish.

"While the creation of these new spaces is underway, many families are already saving up to $1,600 a month per child through our affordability measures," she said, adding all 290 spaces funded in the corridor are expected to open by spring 2022.

This fall, the province will be announcing the next intake for the Childcare BC New Spaces Fund, "asking partners to bring forward opportunities to deliver affordable, quality and inclusive child care that meets the specific needs of their communities," she said.

"I encourage eligible child care providers and community partners in Squamish to apply to this program and help us bring inclusive universal child care to local families — including new infant and toddler spaces."

The government is also supporting B.C.'s early childhood educators (ECEs), the minister said.  

"Our government has funded 20 new seats for Capilano University's Early Childhood Education diploma program. We've also taken steps to ensure ECEs are paid well and are supported in delivering this vital service for families, including by increasing  our $2/hour wage top-up to up to $4/hour."

Earlier in July, the province also announced an agreement with the Government of Canada that will invest $3.2 billion in federal funding over the next five years towards our Childcare BC plan. And the province will be investing more than $2.5 billion over the next three years in early learning and child care:

The government also recently announced an expansion of the $10 a day or less program.

The province is currently accepting applications from licensed child care providers who want to give families child care for $10 a day or less.

According to Chen, the expansion of $10-a-day child care spaces will go from 2,500 currently to 12,500 by December 2022.

"A key goal under Childcare BC is to implement $10-a-day child care across the province," said Chen, in a news release July 20. "We're adding nearly 4,000 new $10-a-day child care spaces in communities across the province, and we're working with our federal counterparts to achieve the goal of inclusive, affordable, universal child care for all."

MLA Sturdy's perspective

"There are no easy quick-fix solutions," said Sea to Sky MLA Jordan Sturdy.

"There are longer-term solutions and recognition from the province that capital costs aren't the development of spaces as a provincial policy does not align with our reality," he said. "I think the province says they will pay up to $45,000 or so per space, but we are pushing closer to $60,000, and that is certainly in Squamish, but also in Pemberton, although space is a little less of an issue in Whistler."

He said the reality is there aren't a lot of venues you could easily convert in either Squamish or Pemberton.

"That is part of the problem. There isn't a recognition that you can't take some unused building and repurpose it because there aren't any unused buildings. So, you pretty much have to build to suit or build to purpose and the development costs just don't support those numbers."

The other long-term issues are wages, education, and recognition of foreign credentials, which has likely exacerbated the situation.

"I have seen again and again where people come to the region — specifically Whistler, but I know it is true for Squamish and Pemberton as well — and they have a qualification from Australia...but we don't have a way of recognizing the quality and validity of the training," he said, adding that six months later, the person could have chosen another type of job.

"The competition for jobs here is intense and if you delay recognition of qualifications, people just move on."

Sturdy also points out that the provincial government will point out that new spaces have to be created, there aren't many net new spaces.

"There are quite a few spaces that are conversions from unlicensed to licensed, so it doesn't get you any new spaces."

Sturdy said there needs to be lots of options for parents and some out-of-the-box thinking.

"The focus has been almost exclusively on public sector licenced spaces, and while that is great, one size doesn't necessarily fit all," he said. "It is going to be really challenging for the public sector to serve everybody, so more support for the private sector and for parents as well."

He said if there is a $10-a-day daycare program, that is a huge public subsidy for those spots. Perhaps some folks don't need it.

 ECE education

Capilano University started offering Early Childhood Education courses in Squamish in 2019.

"That is very welcome to have them here and have them producing graduates," said Sturdy.

"And it is great to see there was some financial support for going through that training because it is a long program and it is a big commitment."

There are 32 students enrolled in the Early Childhood Care and Education diploma or degree program.  

"There is a steady demand for the program with 21 students who began in the new diploma cohort that started in the fall 2019 with the new expansion funding. This new expansion funding is designed specifically to increase the number of qualified early childhood educators in the Sea to Sky Corridor and created the opportunity to provide the diploma program, part-time, over three years," Violet Jessen, instructor in the School of Education and Childhood Studies at Capilano University told The Chief in an emailed statement.

She also serves as the current board chair for Early Childhood Educators of BC (ECEBC)

The 21 students who began in fall 2019 will be completing their Early Childhood Care and Education diploma in the Spring 2022 or Fall 2022, having completed courses required to apply to the ECE Registry as qualified Early Childhood Educators (ECE) and Infant Toddler Educators (ITE) and/or Special Needs Educators (SNE).  

"Enrolment has increased partly due to the flexibility in scheduling, taking into consideration that many or most students are working during the day. Access to bursaries through the professional organization (ECEBC) has also eased financial barriers," Jessen added.

 The maximum capacity is 30 in the diploma program.

"With new federal and provincial dollars flowing into early childhood, post-secondary institutions hope to see support to expand programs to offer more seats," she said.

Asked what the barriers are for those who may want to enroll, Jessen said financing can be an issue.

"ECEBC offers bursaries for students to take ECE courses; however, the funding does not get paid until after the student has completed their course. Bridging this financing is a challenge for students who need to access initial funds to begin their studies," she said.

There are some spaces still available. For registration information, see the ECCE information on the Capilano University website and contact registration@capilanou.ca.

New childcare centre

Andre Correa Marques opened Eaglekids Canadian Learning centre in the Jumar building in June.

The centre is at capacity for infant and toddler spots, but has a few spaces for three-to five-year-olds, he said.

For infant-toddler spots, he has a waitlist of about 100 children, he said.

The centre has been opening gradually, as required through the licensing approval process, he said.

He is also taking over the former Platypus YMCA Childcare centre, which closed June 30.

It will become the second Eaglekids centre in Squamish and will offer 48 spots — 24 infant/toddler spaces and 24 spots for three to five year-olds).

"We will open 12 job opportunities for the community," he said.

Renovations start at the second centre in one month and the new facility is expected to open in March of 2022.

Marques said while finding staff is a problem for some childcare centres, especially finding those qualified to work with infants and toddlers, he has fared OK.

"ECE-IT, that is the challenge," he said. "It is a little bit hard to hire professionals like this, but I do offer them a good salary and I do use LMIA (Labour Market Impact Assessment)," he said, noting the temporary foreign worker program that allows him to bring trained caregivers from foreign countries to work in Squamish.

He already has staff lined up for the second centre, he said

Find out more about the centre here.

 

** What do you think? The Chief would love to hear about your childcare situation and potential solutions. Send us a letter to the editor for publication to editor@squamishchief.com.