Patti Bacchus: Let’s build child-care space into every new or rebuilt B.C. school

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      B.C. finance minister Carole James is getting well-deserved praise for her budget and its record-setting investment in childcare. It’s excellent news for parents and a strong start toward creating an affordable, quality, and accessible public child-care program for B.C. families, but there’s still a long way to go to fulfilling the promise of a universal, $10-a-day program within eight years.

      Keeping that promise won’t be easy or cheap, and some doubt it can be done, but doing so will improve B.C. families’ lives and give a lot of kids a way better start than some get now.

      The B.C. budget includes a massive and much-needed funding injection that will provide some immediate relief for parents—particularly those in low-income families—who struggle with high child-care costs. There’s also money allocated to create 22,000 more desperately needed new child-care spaces, and I know just where to build them to get the best bang for the public’s buck.

      Public schools are ideal locations for new childcare spaces

      There’s no better place to build new child-care spaces than in public schools. In Vancouver alone there are 110 schools—imagine if every one of them had childcare space for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and before- and after-school care for older kids. It would make this city a whole lot more affordable and livable for busy young families.

      For the most part, schools already have playgrounds, gyms, and outdoor space and they’re located in residential neighbourhoods. Many have surplus space due to declining school enrollment and others are slated to be completely rebuilt as part of the seismic-mitigation program. What a terrific and timely opportunity to create more child-care space.

      By making early connections with their local schools, parents and children get a better chance at building community relationships and preparing for a seamless transition to kindergarten. Once kids start school, one daily drop-off and pickup is easier on both parents and kids, making life less stressful for all involved.

      The nine-to-three school day worked fine in the olden days, when most mothers stayed home and families could live comfortably on one income. These days, with the majority of parents in the paid workforce, the traditional school day is a major inconvenience for families that struggle to piece together before- and after-school care. Fortunately for some, it’s already available at a lot of schools. Unfortunately for too many others, there’s often a long wait list or it’s not available at all. And it’s not cheap.

      In my eight years as a Vancouver school board (VSB) trustee, I heard from many parents who were in frantic searches for child care. It often become the primary factor in deciding where to enroll their kids. Elementary-school principals would tell me the first question parents would ask when registering for kindergarten was if there was out-of-school care available.

      B.C. needs to fund school boards to put childcare in all major projects

      It won’t be easy or inexpensive to create more physical space for the publicly funded child-care program, which is why B.C. school boards need to work with the provincial government and local health authorities to take advantage of every cost-effective opportunity to create more child-care space.

      The Horgan government’s already approved funding to replace several seismically high-risk B.C. schools with brand-new buildings, which makes a lot more long-term sense than simply upgrading old, poorly maintained buildings (the way the Liberals wanted boards to do in many cases). Now school boards need to seize this rare opportunity to incorporate child-care space into these projects right from the planning phase instead of trying to add them later through renovations or by adding portables. The province is budgeting money for new spaces—trustees need to make the case for getting that for their school capital projects.

      The VSB is already doing some of this, thanks to the leadership and financial support from our city government, which has made impressive progress on expanding the number of urgently needed child-care spaces throughout Vancouver. When we added four classrooms to Elsie Roy elementary in Yaletown in 2012, the city paid for upgrades to enable those rooms to meet licensing requirement for after-school care. It was a win for local families and a practical use of limited publicly owned space in a densely populated urban community.

      An even bigger win came with the VSB’s Nelson elementary school rebuild project. We (the VSB) struck an agreement with the city in 2015 under which the city, along with some provincial grant funding, paid for the VSB to build a child-care facility of top of the new school. The VSB will lease the floor back to the city for a nominal amount for 60-plus years, and the city will contract the operations out to a nonprofit child-care operator.

      That project became a model for future VSB seismic-replacement projects, including Fleming and Tennyson elementary schools. With Vancouver’s astronomical land prices, building childcares in the airspace on top of schools is a smart idea that should be considered for every new school building in B.C., and possibly even some existing ones.

      Those top-floor spaces the city of Vancouver is funding are intended for kids up to four years old, however, which doesn’t address the need to make sure there’s space available for before- and after-school care for school-aged kids.

      Parents call for mandatory space in all new school buildings

      Some Tennyson elementary parents in Vancouver are circulating an online petition asking government to make accommodating and expanding before- and after-school-care space a requirement for all future school redevelopment or seismic-upgrade projects. Hear, hear! School boards should be calling for this too.

      A loss of space of before- and after-school childcare is one of the top concerns I hear from parents whose kids’ seismically unsafe schools are being rebuilt. The B.C. Liberals-era “area standards” that dictate how much space will be funded for new or replacement schools based on projected enrollment are miserly and inadequate and need to be revised by the new government to incorporate adequate space for expanded child-care spaces.


      Some coordinated and careful planning and investment now means we won’t have to pay for a bunch of costly renovations and additions down the road. Child-care providers need things like storage space and kitchen facilities, and if they’re using classrooms, it’s important to equip those with lockable areas for teachers to easily secure their materials if and when their rooms are used for before- and after-school care.

      In my experience, the best way to go forward is to sit down with all parties involved—teachers, child-care providers, parents, school principals, and project planners—and figure out the what will work for everyone, early in the project-planning process.

      In districts with declining enrollment or surplus classroom capacity, childcare should be the first consideration for using any extra space, whether it’s for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and out-of-school care. Having government funding available to bring spaces up to child-care licensing standards will make a world of difference for child-care providers trying to make a go of it.

      The long-term plan is to bring early care and learning under the B.C. Ministry of Education, so the sooner school boards start integrating childcare into their facility planning, the better they’ll be prepared for the transition.

      Given that we still have to either upgrade or replace dozens more seismically-high-risk B.C. schools and build new ones in growing communities, it would be a terrible waste to pass up this once-in-a-few-lifetimes opportunity to invest in the infrastructure we need for the child-care program. And by getting creative about using any extra space in existing schools for childcare, the more likely the promised universal publicly funded child-care program will become a reality.

      Thanks to the tireless childcare advocates

      I’d be remiss not to give credit and thanks to the tireless child-care advocates who have been making the case for a public child-care plan for decades, especially my friend and former VSB trustee Sharon Gregson. Sharon, and women like Rita Chudnovsky, Lynell Anderson, Susan Harney, Sheila Davidson, Emily Gawlick, Charlene Gray, Mab Oloman, Gyda Chud, and others have been crisscrossing the province for years now making the case for the $10-a-day plan to every chamber of commerce, board of trade, and board or committee of anything, really, and to any group that would listen.

      These determined women developed the detailed blueprint for how to build a universally accessible, affordable, inclusive, quality child-care program that will bring social and economic benefits to B.C. They earned endorsements from all over B.C. and kept at it even in when things seemed hopeless under the B.C. Liberal government.

      The provincial budget unveiled this week is an impressive start down the path laid out in their blueprint. I know Sharon and the other child-care advocates will keep guiding government along until the plan is completely implemented, and they’ll prod and push, if and when necessary. Their leadership and determination are unparalleled and B.C. families are lucky to have women like these on our side, making life better for B.C. kids and their parents.  

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.