Tensions were high Tuesday night as parents gathered at Driftwood Park Public School to voice their concerns about plans for school-run daycare.
“We can’t back down because this is too important for us,” said Elaine Brown, a parent who helped to organize a 50-person protest outside the school.
Wanting to take responsibility for all in-school daycare programs, the Waterloo Region District School Board is holding a series of public consultation roundtables to gather feedback from parents.
“The attempt is to create a space where people that are angry at each other can actually sit down co-operatively and start to solve some problems that were created by the board’s plan,” said Penny Milton, hired by the school board to facilitate the sessions.
Last fall, the WRDSB — as well as the Waterloo Catholic District School Board — announced plans to implement extended daycare at many of its schools, where viable.
Currently, 29 of the board’s 103 elementary schools offer in-school care before and after the school day, provided by third-party providers such as the YMCA. The board plans to take over the existing 29 as well as introduce similar programs at more schools in September for children between the ages of four and seven, but Milton said it might not reach all 103.
“Child care cannot exist where there is not a viable parental base or subsidy base to pay for it. What the parents here had difficulty understanding is that child care is a business, whoever runs it,” she said.
Milton said the success of extended daycare in some schools will allow the board to roll out the service to others which would not be viable on their own, whereas third-party providers have shown a preference to focus only on the most successful schools.
For her part, Brown questions why the school board would kick third-party providers out of its schools unless it was going to offer universal extended daycare throughout its system.
“People think this is universal daycare — there’s no guarantee your school will have before-school care, there may be after-school care, they may have both, they may have neither, they may have care one year and not the next and they’re never going to have summer care,” she said.
Protesters were also critical of the prices set for board-run daycare.
The school board has set a fee of $26 per day for the service, well above the $17 per day Brown pays currently.
“Many people won’t be able to afford that. They’ll be putting their kids in unlicensed daycares or finding alternative arrangements,” she said.
Brown said she was happy with the turnout for the protest, which saw 50 participants on the sidewalk outside the school for nearly an hour despite high winds and constant precipitation.
The majority of those participating were parents with children in third-party, in-school daycare, but a pair of Progressive Conservative MPPs — Kitchener-Conestoga’s Michael Harris and Cambridge’s Rob Leone — also took part, as did Cambridge school trustee Cindy Watson.
“I believe the school board thinks it’s just a couple of disgruntled parents, and this should show them it’s not,” said Brown.
Milton was quick to downplay the suggestion that Tuesday’s session had managed to assuage the fears and change the minds of the parents who attended, many of whom also took part in the protest.
“There was a noticeable shift in mood as the meeting went on, from anger to a degree of impatience and a real desire to get this fixed. There is a very strong desire not to change things — ‘What I’ve got, I like, don’t mess with it,’” she said.
Many of those in attendance left the meeting in foul moods, with several arguing with school board officials even after the doors were opened to the media, who were barred from the roundtable itself.
Milton said a meeting was held recently between board staff, local child- care officials and third-party providers, from which a report would likely be released Friday.
“They have agreed to work together to find solutions to the problems that have solutions. That work will be ongoing, but obviously we can’t do that kind of work in a public arena,” she said.
The provincial government has mandated that school boards provide for before- and after-school care for children between the ages of four and seven. The two Waterloo Region boards are thus far the only boards to attempt to run the service themselves, rather than contracting at least in part with a third-party provider.
Parents have pointed to the local boards’ lone-wolf status as proof that the plan should be reconsidered.
Milton sees it differently, noting that individual school boards adopted practices such as child care and French immersion long before they became provincially mandated.
“If you think of all of the major policy issues in education that have become the standard practice, every single one of them started with a school board that stepped up,” she said.