DAY CARE SHORTAGE  Kids such as these tots with the Windermere Valley Child Care Society are lucky  a regional assessment shows a shortage of day care options for parents in the East Kootenay.    				             File photo

DAY CARE SHORTAGE Kids such as these tots with the Windermere Valley Child Care Society are lucky a regional assessment shows a shortage of day care options for parents in the East Kootenay.File photo

By Breanne Massey

Pioneer Staff

With 18 vacant Early Childhood Educators (ECE) positions in the East Kootenay region, the East Kootenay Child Care Task Force (EKCCTF) anticipates families will be facing significant challenges to find child care.

The EKCCTF released the results of the first phase of East Kootenay Child Care Needs Assessment on October 16th, while noting its difficult to retain qualified staff at community-based child care programs and that hiring qualified staff at the appropriate wage forces programs for children to be closed.

In fact, the East Kootenay region has the highest number of vacant early childhood positions in the interior of B.C., according to the EKCCTF.

Early learning and child care in rural communities in the East Kootenay are in crisis, said Katherine Bonell, EKCCTF spokesperson. We dont have enough skilled, qualified, certified ECEs to operate programs.

The EKCCTF has had representatives from East Kootenay Children First, East Kootenay Success By 6, East Kootenay Child Care Resource and Referral with other East Kootenay members who serve families and child care programs since 2013. The first phase of the East Kootenay Child Care Needs Assessment was funded by the Social Grants Program of the Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) with financial support from the EKCCTF and 45 Conversations.

If there arent enough qualified ECEs, programs have to start reducing the number of children that can participate in the programs, which reduces revenue it just creates this cyclical effect, said Ms. Bonell. Then programs cant meet their budgetary requirements and it ends up closing.

The assessments short-term solutions were to pool resources to create a wage compensation grant which could result in increased wages for provincially licensed child care settings in the East Kootenay region; designate and fund full-time spaces in post-secondary institutions that offer provincially accredited face-to-face childhood education programs within one year of registration; forgive student loans for graduates with ECE programs from provincially accredited locations; and initiating rural communities living allowance for certified ECEs living outside the East Kootenay region who are willing to make a two-year commitment to serving the area.

While the assessments long-term solutions include using pooled resources to research the viability of moving to a fully funded and supported apprenticeship designation for early learning and child care in B.C.; provide ongoing funding supports to address the immediate crisis in early learning and care in rural communities that include enhanced wages and working conditions for ECEs; and creating viable rural communities ECE learning and care with community stakeholders that can enhance the quality of early childhood development, education, learning and care. The supply of child care is not sufficient to meet the current or future child care needs of families in the area, said Jane Boyd, lead of the EKCCTF assessment project, in a press release. Employees in the current child care system juggle challenging work situations, receive low wages and experience limited employment opportunities.

Local operators face staffing challenges

The challenges of interviewing, screening, hiring, relocating and retaining ECE has become daunting for some local child care facilities.

The Eva Joseph Family Centre (the parent organization that manages the Little Badger Early Learning Program) spent a year advertising an ECE opening throughout some of B.C. (Kelowna, Vernon and Kamloops), online and in Calgary, AB to fill the ECE vacancy on Akisqnuk First Nation, but received very few applications to relocate to the Columbia Valley.

We have the room for more kids but the problem is that we dont have teachers, said Carrie Rickards, 41, general manager of Eva Joseph Learning and Cultural Centre. We have a position that we finally filled but it was really difficult to get people who were qualified ECEs that take pride in their job and want to stay. A lot of people will come for a short time, but theres a high burnout rate and they dont get paid what they really deserve, so its hard to make a living and (stay) in this area.

While the job Ms. Rickards was trying to fill took a year to accomplish, she believes it was the last six months of perseverance that sealed the deal.

Were very lucky to have the quality of staff that we have, she added. Were very fortunate, especially all the ECEs and all of the ECE assistants in the valley but its really hard to get anybody to fill the vacancies.

Currently there are two ECEs on staff with support from two other staff at the Little Badger Early Learning Program. Our capacity is 55, but we cant do that, she explained. We can only take 28 kids at a time but our capacity is 55.

Ms. Rickards believes two more ECEs would be required if the program was to accept 55 children.

ECEs, what they do, they are definitely under-appreciated and under-paid, she concluded. To recruit qualified ECEs into the valley or getting people that live here certified is a really big challenge.