Fraser Valley professionals in early childhood education are expressing worry over the province’s rollout of over 400 new childcare spaces in the region.
Many facility managers say the government’s focus should be geared towards improving the conditions of current early childhood educators (ECEs), and the quality of students coming into the field, over expanding on the existing infrastructure.
“It’s always been a struggle to find quality ECEs, but right now, it’s the most challenging I’ve ever seen.” said Jenn Carman-Kask, a manager at Chilliwack’s Sto:lo Early Education Centre. “Most of the applications I get are under-qualified.”
Over 10,400 new childcare spaces have been created in B.C. in the past 15 months – a move towards universal childcare that the provincial government is calling “one of the largest social policy changes in B.C.’s history.”
Carman-Kask says that her facility has a critical shortage of staff, not space. She said Sto:lo Early Education has a licence to have 80 children use her facility, but is currently running at half capacity because of a lack of qualified educators. Provincial childcare regulations permit an 8-to-1 student-teacher ratio.
“We don’t have the desire to bring in more children – not because I don’t want to help families but because our priority is ensuring we’re following licensing and ensuring the team I have is well taken care of,” Carman-Kask said. “I think it would have been more important [for the province to] focus on the current ECEs and the new ECEs that are coming into the field.”
Since B.C.’s NDP took office in 2017, child-welfare spending has increased from $1.4 billion to close to $2 billion in their budget – an increase of almost 45 per cent. This will include a $2 wage bump by April 2020, as well as 5,400 bursaries for post-secondary students entering ECE positions and educators already working in the field needing to upgrade their training.
But these incentives are not enough to bring people into the field, says Cynthia Parasiliti, an ECE educator at Sprott Shaw Community College. She says her classroom sizes have not increased in the three years since the bursaries have been offered.
“I thought the bursaries were going to be our saving grace,” Parasiliti said. “It’s been really shocking to me to see it erode to where it is now.”
The enrolment numbers at University of the Fraser Valley’s ECE certificate program have remained stable, according to Christine Slavik, the department head for Child, Youth, and Family Studies at UFV. But government funding has been “instrumental” in allowing the university to renew the shorter diploma programs that had been discontinued due to low enrolment.
“Enrolments were too low to run a regular cohort prior to receiving the funding. The funding allowed us to offer the diploma with seven students last year and eight this current year,” Slavik said. “This provided the opportunity for increasing the number of qualified care providers to work in this much-needed area of practice.”
The diploma program requires students to complete a 200-hour practicum working in the field. The next step is for them to apply to the provincial licensing board as an ECE assistant.
But many never become a fully certified educator because of low wages and working conditions in the field, Kask says.
“An ECE assistant can take a one-year course in nutrition and apply for an ECE assistance licence or certificate. Technically they are qualified to work with children, but if they only have one course under their belt, they’re going to have a challenging time dealing with children’s behaviour,” she said. “There is not a lot of incentive for [assistants] to continue their education.”
Searching for or replacing qualified staff is extremely difficult, says Navi Bhattal of Abbotsford’s ABC Childcare. She worked as an ECE for seven years before opening her own facility.
“A lot of people in the last 10 years have left the field,” Bhattal said. “For somebody going to university, they’re going to be spending over $10,000 there, and then you’re only making $25,000 a year. With the cost of living, not a lot of people find this field appealing.”
Bhattal said that funding should be going to the centres and veteran workers. She says while the bursaries get people into the field, they don’t make them stick around.
“Turnover is high.”
Although wages have increased a little, it’s not nearly enough for the undervalued work ECEs perform, says Kamal Pannu of Abbotsford’s New Leaf Learning and Childcare. Pannu’s facility is most staffed with students doing their practicums.
“As an educator myself, I firmly believe that government should increase and subsidize the wages more so we can have people wanting to work here,” she said. “We have people who came into the field because they had a passion for working with children but could not sustain their family with what they were making … That’s something I have seen over and over again.
“There’s a need for more quality childcare centres.”
The province has invested more than $13 million for wage increases for over 10,000 ECEs, with $1.2 million finding its way into hands in the Fraser Valley. Katrina Chen, the Minister of State for Child Care, acknowledged it’s only a start.
“We know that’s a huge challenge,” she said. “We know $2 is only a start – it’s limited – but this is definitely the first time the provincial government has taken important steps to address the workforce challenge and make sure it’s not just patchwork.”
Parasiliti said although she supports the province’s initiatives after a decade of the childcare sector being ignored, she worries about how strategically it’s being rolled out.
“It’s just been left; now we’re at situation critical.”