Some parents in Vancouver's West End say they're upset after being informed that their local preschool will be shutting down next month, another sign that facilities across British Columbia are struggling with a shortfall in qualified staff.
Little Sprout Preschool, which is run by the West End Community Centre Association, sent a letter to parents earlier this month saying it was shutting down the program in December due to "staffing challenges and enrolment issues."
Parents like Denise Ting, whose three-year-old son attends the school, says there was no consultation with parents about the decision, or even a warning.
"Instead of just closing it down, you can talk to us. There was no sit-down conversation with the parents on how to solve the problem together," said Ting.
Parents have now started a petition to keep the preschool program running at least until the end of the school year.
The shortage in qualified staff is being felt across B.C., people in the child-care industry say, despite investments from both the provincial and federal governments.
At Little Sprout, which can accommodate 40 children, association president David Scott says there have been staffing issues since September 2020.
Since then, the preschool has had to periodically run the program with just one permanent early childhood educator (ECE) and several substitutes filling the required second position.
"We went through probably seven or eight substitute folks to cover the second position," Scott said in a statement to CBC News.
"Without permanent staff we have to rely on substitute staff [so] there are times when we go almost day to day uncertain if we have the required staffing to open the next day or week."
Across the city in East Vancouver, Collingwood Neighbourhood House, which employs 50 ECEs and accepts 400 students, says it's operating on a week-to-week basis as it can't find enough qualified ECEs to fill in when staff are sick or take days off.
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Making things worse for Little Sprout, Scott said, has been a simultaneous decrease in enrolment, with only around half of its 40 spaces filled this year.
"It may appear to parents that everything is going smoothly but like the duck analogy, the duck seems to glide across the pond while under the surface it is paddling like mad," Scott said.
Recruiting ECEs a challenge: child-care agency director
Melissa Hunt, executive director of Childhood Connections Okanagan Family & Childcare Society in Kelowna, B.C., says recruiting and retaining qualified ECEs is a challenge.
She said a survey conducted by the organization in November 2021 showed more than 200 child-care spaces were "unavailable" in the Central Okanagan.
"Those are existing spaces or ones that have been open but not able to have children because they don't have educators in place for staffing," Hunt explained.
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ECEs have been "under-respected and underpaid," for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it much worse, said Sharon Gregson with the Coalition of Child Care Advocates for B.C.
"With COVID and working with, for a long time, unvaccinated population of young children, the close contact ... the stress and the burnout has made it a very challenging work environment," she said.
Province aims to expand wages
In a statement to CBC News, the province said there are always fluctuations in the number of available child-care spaces in B.C., as "child-care operators move, retire or make other changes to their business."
Katrina Chen, B.C.'s minister of state for child care, says the province is currently working on strategies such as bursaries and stabilizing pay, along with professional development opportunities, to better support certified ECEs.
"We're building a wage grid to make sure that they can be paid more predictable and stable wages when they come into this workforce," Chen added.
Gregson said the median wage for ECEs in B.C. is $25 an hour.
"That means half the early childhood educators in the province are earning less than $25 ... and it really remains an underfunded sector," she said.