Daycare centres are "full to the brim" with demand, and as the province offers new spots, centres say they have another limit: physical space.
"There's still huge demand in Sussex but ... we're still kind of bound. We don't have any plans to expand, so there isn't any hope to have anything new here," said Norah Deveau, administrative director at Lisa's Playhouse in Roachville, just outside Sussex.
"Every room that we have available to us is being used, so there's no room to actually make another classroom or anything like that. We're full to the brim."
According to Marsha Boyd-Mitchell, head of schools for Sussex Christian School, the school opened an early-learning centre for kids 15 months to four years old at Calvary Church in the fall of 2021, and is already considering expanding with all 90 spots full.
"We actually have a wait list of 150 children. It's unbelievable," Boyd-Mitchell said. "Our business plan at the time was to fill [those seats] in six months, but we filled in six weeks. We're out of space again and we're looking to see how we might expand."
In the spring, the province announced that 600 new spaces have been allocated to operators in 24 New Brunswick communities as part of the bilateral agreement with the federal government on child care, 400 of which are expected to come online in September. Fifty-eight of the new spots are destined for the Sussex region, including Sussex Corner and Apohaqui, with 42 infant spaces and 16 preschool spaces, the Telegraph-Journal has reported.
But those subsidized spaces require businesses to have real-world space to accommodate, Deveau said.
"Daycares in the area get to say they want five more spaces. But if they're like us, they don't have room to put five more spaces," she said.
Lisa's Playhouse, which opened in 2007 and last expanded five years ago, has about 60 spots for children and has a waiting list from 100 to 200 children at any given time, Deveau said. But because children move from the infant room of the centre through various age groups, she said there are rarely new spots until kids head to the school system.
"When someone calls and says, 'Can I move up on the waitlist?' it's almost painful for me," Deveau said.
Early learning spots are subsidized, and calls for applications are made for the areas they think need them the most, Deveau said, which can be a wait of more than a year. But that means a new centre already has to have the physical space to accommodate them, she said.
"Your centre has to be ready ... to come and approve. But nobody wants to put that much money into something if they don't know it's going to be approved," said Deveau, adding it can be as much as $200,000 in prep. When "Sally down the street" tries to open a small centre, they end up competing with established businesses who also want to expand.
"It's harder and harder, but I understand, because it's tricky. You're handling people's children, so it has to be safe," she said. "It's a great thing in one way, but in another they are making it harder for spaces to be opened up."
Provincial spokesperson Charles Renshaw said in a statement that there are 173 spaces for the Saint John-Quispamsis-Sussex area, with 99 of those infant and the rest preschool. He said it was expected that those spaces would be open in the next 18 months.
Since September 2021, the province has created 1,422 of a promised 3,400 "high-quality, affordable, flexible and inclusive" spaces by 2026 as part of the Canada-New Brunswick Canada Wide Early Learning and Child Care Agreement, Renshaw said. The spaces have an average cost of $12.82 per day with a goal of $10 per day by 2026, he added.
Renshaw said families should register for the department's waitlist, adding it "helps connect families with opportunities in their community and helps provide the department with a better understanding of child care space needs in New Brunswick communities.”
Boyd-Mitchell said her school is "happy and enthusiastic" that they were able to get space from the church to help meet the need.
“Child care is a real issue in this town," she said. "We scratched a bit of the edge, but there’s more to be done for sure.”
Deveau said one way of handling it could be approving unsubsidized spaces, so that when opportunities become available, a centre can be open and ready for them but also still be approved to operate.
"If you have childcare anywhere in New Brunswick ... [parents] don't even care what the cost is anymore," she said. "Which is good if they can find a space, but I hope it's licenced and monitored so your child is getting what they need."
With files from Barbara Simpson
Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal