Parents upset over fate of downtown New West childcare spaces
Daycares operating at Qayqayt, Fraser River Middle School poised to move
Parents of children attending daycares operating at Qayqayt Elementary and Fraser River Middle School (FRMS) are hoping for a miracle.
The two locations provide care for a combined 72 infants and toddlers—and both of the daycares are slated to be moved for the 2023-24 school year in order to create classroom spaces: four rooms at FRMS and two at Qayqayt.
The school board will finalize the move on Tuesday—but where the daycares will end up going is another question.
As it stands, both daycares will likely be moved out of the downtown core unless other locations become available before Dec. 13, which is when the spaces have to be finalized. Currently, the new locations include Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary in the West End and F.W. Howay Elementary—just a few blocks from the Burnaby/New West border along 10th Avenue.
An Oct. 27 email from Purpose Society to parents of children who attend the daycares states that most of the children and families impacted live in the downtown core.
"We know that most of the children attending (and are on waitlists at) the two centres reside in the downtown area. So, while we know some families may be able to manage the transition to childcare in a less central location, others would not," reads the email obtained by New West Anchor. "For this reason, we will also be doing our own investigation on whether there is an alternate space we can use to continue to provide childcare to the families we support now, in a more central location."
James Plett is one of the impacted parents. He says it was already a problem trying to find care for his one-year-old daughter.
"We actually got on a waitlist [for the Qayqayt daycare] when she was a couple months in my partner's uterus," Plett says. "We got her in there in June. Things have been pretty good since then ... we found out through another mom, actually, that the school board was talking [about the changes to the daycares] ... I actually couldn't believe it."
Plett says that prompted him and his partner to reach out to some of the folks running for re-election for school board. Plett says they were told by the candidates that there would be consultation before any move happened.
When some of the recent school board meetings seemed to suggest otherwise, Plett was in shock.
"It was a lot of emotions. It was disbelief," says Plett. "It was a sense of betrayal, a lot of anger there, but there's also sadness, because we had a rocky start getting her into the daycare. There were days when she'd be crying the entire time. We'd get her back at the end of the day, and she was just miserable."
Things may have changed since the early days—Plett says his daughter will often hug her caregivers goodbye ("she says 'huggies!' and runs towards them with her arms out.")—but he's worried about the changes throwing those gains out of whack.
"That's the thing that sticks out to me the most. We'll try to find a way to make it work, but stability is important for kids at this age. Having to put your kid in daycare is bad enough— it's a reality most have to face—but then having to get kicked out ... It's so heartbreaking to me."
Ella Cheng has two children and lives a five-minute walk to Qayqayt Elementary, where her oldest is in Grade 1 and her second child goes to the daycare. Cheng says she's fortunate to be at the Purpose Society-run centre because the cost is manageable, adding some of the other options would have had them paying twice what they currently do.
"That's what triggered my concern about moving this daycare, and especially for kids that have siblings going to Qayqayt. It doesn't make sense for parents to go here and there to pick up both," says Cheng. "It makes a big, big difference because we can bring both kids out at the same time, then we can just drop them off [at Qayqayt] and then we can get to work."
Cheng adds her family has also had its fair share of struggles with daycare. Their younger child was at another centre when they found out that, due to development, they'd need to find him a new spot. While the youngest will be heading to kindergarten next year, she can't help but empathize with those affected.
"I want my kids to have more space [in a classroom] because they are going to [Qayqayt] and then they'd enjoy that. Technically I should be supporting the idea [of more classroom space]; this would benefit my kids ... but I know it's a struggle to find daycare space."
"It's technically not affecting my case, but this doesn't mean that we don't care as a community member. I care as a mom; I care about what other moms are feeling."
How did we get here?
The issue of daycare and classroom space has long been challenging in New Westminster. The school district has said time and again that school enrolment has continued to increase over the last few years. Qayqayt is already dealing with displacement: for this school year, 24 students living in the Qayqayt catchment area were sent to other schools due to overcrowding—though the most recent number sits at 33, according to school board chair Gurveen Dhaliwal.
In June, the board noted that the majority of the school sites in the district were "severely undersized."
In April, staff were directed to come up with a report looking at the options to increase childcare spaces in schools. The requested report also asked staff to look at whether school-based part-time staff could be used to offer before- and after-school care.
During an Oct. 4 operations policy and planning committee meeting, district vice-principal of early learning Tanis Anderson presented the numbers based on information from Westminster Children's After School Society (WCAS). WCAS runs childcare services at most of the elementary and middle schools in the city.
In June, the board passed principles to help guide staff when making decisions around short-term capacity strategies: the first being to use space to support K to 12 in-catchment regular enrolment; the second principle included programs of choice, community partnerships, and non-instructional uses of space. The latter category is where infant and toddler childcare falls. The second principle goes on to say that childcare spaces could be "relocated to school facilities where space permits," as necessary. "It is recognized that while short term capacity is being created, that the decisions put before the board will have long-lasting impacts."
"Obviously the conversations about short-term capacity are really complex and challenging," secretary-treasurer Bettina Ketcham said during the Oct. 4 meeting, "and we know that trustees are yet to make some fairly difficult decisions that do affect the long-term impacts of our districts and how we operate overall. I also want to acknowledge that for our partner groups, these are really challenging discussions and decisions that are being made that do impact their ongoing work alongside our district."
At the time, relocating New West Family Place was the only consideration. That night, the board voted to convert the Family Place space into classrooms, with the conversion set to be complete for the 2023-24 school year.
While some then trustees—like Anita Ansari—wanted to know that every effort had been made to ensure the spaces wouldn't be moved out of the downtown core, Ketcham said a decision had to be made, and sooner rather than later.
"At what point would the board wave the white flag?" asked Ketcham, noting that the school district is "starved for space." "How long should the district continue to identify such options? If it's within a couple of weeks, that might not be an issue. But the longer you march this process out in terms of trying to identify space, the higher the pressure is that faces us when we cannot continue to find space."
"We did have to make those challenging choices that did prioritize the needs of our K to 12 learners," board chair Dhaliwal told The Anchor in an interview. "[This decision] is absolutely upsetting, and I think, in an ideal world, we don't want to be pitting our different school demographics against each other. But in the face of such significant pressures, we have a responsibility to fulfill our K to 12 mandate."
Dhaliwal said consulting parents before making any moves would always be a key part of the board's work.
"We are deeply committed to engaging in intentional and meaningful consultation, which we do through our annual budget process, or things like our strategic plan," explains Dhaliwal, "and really we recognize that consultation is a way to help inform our decisions when we're considering multiple options on the table. But the unfortunate reality ... is that we had no other choices that would allow us to prioritize the needs of the K to 12 learners. In reality, no amount of consultation could change that stark reality."
When asked about Plett's comments that election candidates promised to consult with parents about the move, Dhaliwal said she could not comment.
A suggestion was made by then-trustee Ansari to reimagine the Anvil Centre as a space for the displaced New West Family Place program that had been running out of Qayqayt. The Anchor asked Dhaliwal if that could also be an option for childcare spaces in the downtown core.
"I think that these are open dialogue that we're having with the city. I had the opportunity to speak with Mayor [Patrick] Johnstone ... in supporting our New West families. And really exploring all options that exist in the downtown area," said Dhaliwal, who noted that there would be a meeting with the city closer to the end of November.
While Dhaliwal agrees that neighbourhood childcare is an important component of stable life in New Westminster, she says this is ultimately a multi-partner issue that does involve the province providing funding—along with exploring options from the city.
"We are proud that we are not closing daycare spaces, but that we are relocating them to alternative school sites, so that we'll be able to house them for 15 years," noted Dhaliwal. "That's why we're looking at what options are possible; what are our viable options in the downtown core."
If space were to open up in the downtown core in those 15 years, Dhaliwal said it would be up to Purpose Society to see if it could relocate.
The Anchor also requested an interview with Purpose Society, but it declined. In an email, Lynda Gordon-Fletcher noted that Purpose would continue to support the families impacted over the coming months, and that "the main story lies with the school district and their need for more space for students."
"I don't think it's a [sudden] exploding [of kids] ... it's ongoing [in the] elementary school," says Cheng. "They needed space, it's a long [time] thing ... with the development of the catchment area you can tell there are more apartments and more young families moving in.
"I think there was no consultation happening beforehand. We are the stakeholders. We consider ourselves... stakeholders because we are affected, then future parents or kids, anyone that's using that facility."
"We feel like we're a forgotten group. We're users of the daycare, but ... we go through Purpose Society, and Purpose Society goes through the school," says Plett, who adds students in the K to 12 system are just as important. "I get the school board is in this position where they're our landlord or whatever, but what comes with that is a greater responsibility to the tenants.
"It's easy to point at the school board, I think, but I think it's also a provincial issue, and a federal issue, too."