Campus parents vexed as childcare plans grind to a halt

With the future of a proposed childcare facility at the University of Saskatchewan in limbo, frustrations among those in need of childcare spots on campus are growing.

In March 2013, the U of S Board of Governors approved construction of a new, 90 spot childcare facility directly west of Souris Hall in McEown Park. However, the board reversed their decision at their most recent meeting, expressing doubt that the university would be able to afford the project and suggesting that options other than the construction of a standalone facility be explored.

“It was kind of a shock to hear we’re not building this new facility,” said MaryLou Mintram, who serves on the U of S Students’ Union Childcare Centre Board of Directors. “This was supposed to be one thing we didn’t have to worry about.”

The U of S currently has two childcare facilities that offer a combined 110 spots: one in the R.J. Williams Building and one in the Education Building. However, in recent years the demand for childcare spaces on campus has grown sharply and the availability has been dwindling.

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The new childcare centre at McEown Park was intended to alleviate the growing pressure from the campus community for additional childcare spaces. Until the last Board of Governors meeting, parents on campus were hopeful their voices were finally being heard.

“It’s quite upsetting because a few months ago I was really excited to tell [the parents] about the new facility, but then not much later saying ‘Ok, there’s been a change,’” Mintram said. “A lot of students were telling me just how disappointed they are.”

Mintram said the board’s announcement came as a shock to everyone on the childcare steering committee.

“When I found out, I literally had to take a full day of not talking about it and just letting it set in,” Mintram said. “After all the work we’d done, it was like ‘What’s the point?’ . . . All we were doing was picking out the furniture and now it’s been taken away.”

The longest waiting list is for spots designated for children two-and-a -half years old and younger. The USSU Childcare Centre only has the capacity for 16 of these children — 6 spots for infants aged six weeks to 18 months and 10 spots for toddlers aged 18 months to two-and-a-half years.

“I haven’t counted it in the last little bit, but I know enough that between students, staff and faculty there’s over 200 kids on the waitlist for those particular ages,” said Colleen Gerling, executive director of the USSU Childcare Centre.

Gerling attributed the limited number of available spots for infants and toddlers to provincial childcare regulations, which require a higher number of staff for each child in these age categories. For infants, provincial regulations require a one-to-three staff-to-child ratio, while toddlers require a one-to-five ratio.

“Infants and toddlers require more staff. They also require more room space and, of course, they’re younger so they just need more care,” Gerling said. “So there hasn’t been much offered on campus for two-and-a-half years [of age] and under.”

The Government of Saskatchewan’s childcare regulations — which are among the strictest in the country — dictate that facilities can have only six or 12 infant spots.

Gerling added that because of the stricter regulations on infant and toddler spots it is more financially feasible for the university to offer a greater number of preschool spots, which only require a one to 10 staff-to-child ratio. As a result, the cost of offering spaces for younger children is significantly higher.

“We’re not meeting the need for infants and toddlers, but in the next breath, we’d have to charge student-parents more to make it cost effective,” Gerling said.

The 16 spots for infants and toddlers at the USSU Childcare Centre are the only ones available on campus. The Campus Daycare Centre caters only to children in the preschool category — aged two-and-a-half to six.

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Between the USSU Childcare Centre and the Campus Daycare Centre, there are 94 spots available for preschoolers. Even with the higher number of spaces being offered, Gerling said that they are still very much in demand.

“The preschool wait list probably has 100. Again, we just need more spots,” Gerling said.

The proposed McEown Park facility would add spaces for six infants, 10 toddlers and 40 preschoolers, in addition to two “flex rooms” which could be adapted depending on the demand at any given time. The flex rooms could accommodate either 34 preschoolers or 19 preschoolers and 15 toddlers.

However, with the centre’s future unclear, the waiting list for childcare spaces on campus is left to grow. Gerling said that she could easily fill an entire childcare centre just off the current waiting list, but added that the list is always getting longer.

“I’ll bet you that three times a week I get parents phoning and asking if they can get on the list, where they are on the list and why it’s taking so long,” Gerling said. “Just off my waiting list, we could have an entire centre to fulfill that need.”

As the university tries to increase enrollment,  the demand for childcare is rising and Gerling is often left to break it to parents that the supply is simply not there and that all she can do for them is put them on the waiting list.

“My rule of thumb right now is telling people that they’re looking at six months to a year before they get in, but that’s probably being generous,” Gerling said. “It’s probably closer to a year-and-a-half.”

Carla Fraser, a recent graduate from the undergraduate social work program, said she was only able to get her two children into campus childcare by calling 18 months in advance.

“I knew when I’d be starting school and I told them that,” Fraser said. “But I knew well in advance and how many people can plan like this?”

Fraser was also told that if a space opened up before the fall term started, she would be forced to take it then rather than deferring it until September.

However, some parents on campus say they have been on the waiting list for up to three years.

Heather Exner-Pirot, a staff member in the College of Nursing, said she put her two children — aged one and three at the time — on the waiting list in September of 2010 but never heard back.

“They warned me that it was a very long list, so my thought was that my three-year-old might never see this daycare, but my one-year-old would benefit from it at some point,” Exner-Pirot said.

In December of 2012, Exner-Pirot was starting in a new position in the College of Nursing and was rescheduling her childcare. After over two years of not hearing back, she decided to call the USSU Childcare Centre to check her status on the wait list.

“I called them and they couldn’t even be bothered to see if I was still on the waiting list or where I was on it,” Exner-Pirot said. “All they said to me was they wouldn’t be accepting anyone soon, so there’s no point in checking.”

Being kept in the dark about her status on the waiting list has forced Exner-Pirot to find alternative means of childcare, ranging from day homes to grandparents.

“That waiting list is a black wall. You just have no idea when or if you’ll get in. It’s not transparent at all,” Exner-Pirot said.

Mintram is no stranger to the campus childcare system either.

“When I first found out I was pregnant, people told me to get on the USSU childcare waiting list immediately because by the time they give you a call, you’ll be waiting for a very long time,” Mintram said. “And sure enough, I did. I waited for a very long time and had to find alternative care just to continue my studies here.”

Mintram said that finding alternative childcare in the city is a challenge in itself, as facilities are often costly and can be inaccessible for people who need to be at the university on a daily basis.

“Our childcare centres are open to both students and staff, and that makes sense, but to only have two of them?” Mintram said. “If you do the statistics, there are many students with dependents and if the university is taking this seriously, they’re not supporting our needs.”

Mintram said she is lucky that she was able to get a space for her son at the USSU Childcare Centre and wishes that the new facility would be built so more parents could benefit from campus childcare.

“I just hope they build the new facility so other parents can have the ease that I’ve had with my son in there. I’m one of the fortunate few with a spot,” she said.

Certain demographics of the student-parent population are feeling the crunch of the waiting list more than others. A telephone survey conducted by the Social Sciences Research Laboratories in October 2013 identified Aboriginal students as a particular area of need for childcare spaces.

The survey results state that “Aboriginal students are disproportionately represented among students, are more likely to be single parents and are most interested in campus childcare.”

Mintram, who also serves on the Indigenous Students’ Council, said she has found this to be true from her own experiences. The proposed McEown Park childcare centre was supposed to address this need by dedicating 15 per cent of the new spots to Aboriginal students.

“That’s one of my biggest concerns. We’ve showcased the need, so is that going to be another broken promise? I don’t know and I don’t have the answers,” Mintram said.

The increasing need for affordable and accessible childcare on the U of S campus has been noted by student leaders and appears to be one of the hot topics in this year’s USSU executive elections. Max FineDay and David Ogunkanmi, who are both in the running for USSU president, have listed campus childcare as a main point in their campaign platforms.

“The USSU has been pressuring the university for more childcare spaces for years,” said outgoing Vice-President Student Affairs Nour Abouhamra in an email to the Sheaf. “I hope that the new executive will see the importance of childcare for our members and continue to press the university to follow through on its commitment it made to childcare.”


Graphic: Stephanie Mah/Graphics Editor