Squamish childcare plan calls for major increase in spaces | Squamish Chief

Squamish childcare plan calls for major increase in spaces

District hopes to create 720 new spaces by 2029

Shortly before COVID-19 made toilet paper something in short supply, there was something else that was already desperately needed in Squamish — available childcare.

 Recently, Sea to Sky Child Care Resource and Referral, along with other organizations such as municipality and School District 48, have stepped up to prioritize childcare to essential service workers.

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 However, before the pandemic, council met on March 10 to discuss the District's new childcare plan, which provides finer details on the problem, as well as possible solutions.

 "Lack of childcare has obvious economic consequences and those impact everyone, but, disproportionately, it's women who bear the consequences," said Torill Gillespie, a community planning consultant for the municipality.

 The plan makes clear what many parents in town have already known for some time — Squamish has a major lack of childcare, and for a young, growing community, that's an especially big hurdle for its residents.

 "Squamish's overall childcare access rate of 21% is similar to that of many other B.C. communities, but the numbers don't tell the whole story," reads the report, entitled Squamish Child Care Action Plan. "Squamish's unique demographics and affordability challenges result in high need for childcare, much of which is currently unmet and will require significant action to improve as the child population in Squamish continues to grow."

To address this issue, the childcare access rate should be increased from 21% to 30%, as recommended in the Squamish Child Care Needs Assessment & Strategy 2018-2023, the plan says.

 As of September 2019, there were 817 licensed childcare spaces in Squamish. To reach the 30% goal, authorities will need to license 720 new childcare spaces. This breaks down to 72 per year, if the target is to be hit by 2029.

 But there will be hurdles.

 Affordability was pinned as a barrier to attracting early childhood educators, or ECEs, assistants and spaces.

 The average ECE earns about $18.12 an hour, the report says. Before deductions, This becomes $3,140 when translated into a months' pay. An average one-bedroom apartment, according to the study, rents for about $1,128 a month. Assuming affordable housing is 30% of a person's monthly income, this means Squamish is unaffordable for the average ECE.

 High housing prices are also a substantial barrier. Nearly half of the licensed infant and toddler spaces are in residential homes, which average at $930,000 for a detached house.

 This is an increase of 54% since around 2015.

 "This rapid increase in housing value is a barrier to entry for potential new family childcare providers," the report reads.

 Adding to all this is the growing population of children.

 In 2019, there were 3,894 children aged 12 and under. By the year 2029, that number is expected to balloon to 5,123.

 The report suggests several ways to help alleviate these issues.

 One recommendation called on the municipality to create childcare amenity space guidelines for future developments who are giving community amenity contributions. These guidelines would help spell out local space needs and establish consistent expectations for age groups, co-location factors, facility tenure, operating and leasing.

 "We're kind of on an ad-hoc basis," said municipal planner Sarah McJannet. "[Having] clarity right out of the gate is so helpful."

 There was also talk of creating a child-minding service. For example, the Recreation Access Pass program could include child-minding offerings for eligible Squamish residents.

 Improving after-school programming for seven-to-12-year-olds was also another recommendation.

 Working with the Sea to Sky School District was also another idea floated in the report. It cited the work done on collaborating for a childcare space in Valleycliffe Elementary as an example of a stepping stone toward more projects.

 Councillors also had their own suggestions as well.

 Coun. John French asked if bringing in large-scale corporate providers to the local daycare market could help things out.

 "Is there an opportunity to have the economic development department maybe be more involved to potentially attract big box childcare — if that's a step that could help us," said French.

 Coun. Jenna Stoner also said that advocacy to the province could also play a role. Staff added that lobbying for things like better wages for ECEs could go a long way.

 There's also the question of figuring out ways to reduce the need for childcare, said Coun. Chris Pettingill.

 "Should we be looking at preferential business licence fees or other things for businesses that have flex work times for parents, embedded childcare in business?" said Pettingill. "Are we doing enough to make it easy to work from home?"

 Councillors voted unanimously in favour of directing staff to implement the actions and next steps recommended in the plan. Coun. Doug Race was absent at the time.

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