As pre-primary rolls out, preschools face uncertainty — even closure
'It pretty much meant the world to me,' says one operator. 'It’s still really hard to talk about'
Shannon Murphy was forced to make a gut-wrenching decision last month to close her business and turn her back on the only job she's ever had.
For the last 18 years, Murphy ran a preschool program from her home in Chegoggin on the outskirts of Yarmouth. But this year, she lost six students when they registered for a new pre-primary program now being delivered in town by the Nova Scotia government.
"It pretty much meant the world to me, basically, and it's still really hard to talk about," said Murphy. "It was my whole lifestyle really. It's what I knew. It's just really hard."
With her enrolment dwindling to only four students, Murphy said she had no other choice but to close. Breaking the news to her few remaining clients was tough.
"The most difficult thing was actually calling them and telling them, 'I can't stay open because I only have you four left,'" said Murphy. "I just couldn't tell them without crying on the phone."
The provincial government's new pre-primary program rolled out last month, with 818 preschool students heading to 52 classrooms set up in 45 elementary schools all over the province. Education Minister Zach Churchill has said another 70 classes are planned for next fall.
While the move fulfills one of the central commitments made by the Liberals during the spring election campaign, it is putting preschools and daycares in a precarious position.
Preschools and daycares charge fees, but must now compete against a pre-primary system for four-year-olds that's free.
An Education Department spokesperson said in an email that any preschool operators who are struggling should get in touch with the department, although she did not detail how the government might help.
"We appreciate that operators have expressed concerns about potential impacts with the introduction of pre-primary and we are committed to consulting with families and the sector so that [they] may continue to be successful," said Heather Fairbairn.
At Starting Blocks Daycare and Preschool in Pictou, operator Sherri Kilburn said she's learned a pre-primary program will be coming to her town and worries it will put her business in jeopardy.
"It will definitely be in doubt because we are seeing that our enrolment is already down this year," said Kilburn, who got into the preschool and daycare industry 24 years ago.
"One of my staff is already gone this year because I don't have enough children here. I can't afford to pay staff when we don't have enough children."
Kilburn said her preschool is not a "huge money-making operation." It chooses to be in the town, she said, and without it a piece of the community would be gone.
Other longtime preschool programs are spreading the word that they need new students to sign up because they are losing theirs to the new provincial program.
"This has had a not-so-good impact on our enrolment in both our morning preschool and full-day preschool programs," wrote Needham Preschool executive director Janessa Williams in the school's October newsletter. "We have spaces in our program we need to fill … we rely on full enrolment to keep our program top quality."
Williams said her north-end Halifax facility, located on Devonshire Avenue, has already lost students to the new pre-primary program now up and running at nearby St. Stephen's Elementary School.
Early childhood educators are also being poached from preschools by pre-primary.
"There's been a big impact in regards to staff," said Lisa Davies, the executive director of the Dartmouth Child Development Centre and chair of the Non-Profit Directors Association of Nova Scotia.
She said while staff are being hired away, it's been difficult to find replacements.
"The applications are just not coming in, people are advertising and they're not getting any resumés whatsoever."