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Burnaby, New Westminster parents back call to change kindergarten entry

Two-week-long process is a "mental health and economic burden" for parents, petition says.
kindergartenerwithmombackpack
Burnaby and New West parents are backing a new petition asking the province to change the gradual entry process for kindergarten students.

Parents from Burnaby and New Westminster are adding their voices to a call for changes to B.C.’s gradual approach to kindergarten entry.

Students around the province returned to class Sept. 5 for the 2023-24 school year — but many kindergarteners haven’t been in their classrooms for a full day yet.

That’s because most public schools have some form of “gradual entry” in place for students entering kindergarten. The details vary from district to district, and from school to school within districts, but, in a nutshell, gradual entry provides new schoolgoers with a slow transition into the classroom before they’re attending full-time.

That means some children will go for only certain days, or certain hours on particular days, for the first two weeks of the school year. For some, parent meetings are also part of the process.

All of which leaves parents scrambling to figure out child care — and that’s where they’d like to see things change.

A current petition to the province of British Columbia, started by a Burnaby parent, notes the current system of two weeks of gradual entry causes “undue hardship” for families.

“The system of giving kindergarteners two weeks to adjust to the school setting was implemented many years ago, and no longer makes sense given the current social and economic climate,” the petition reads.

“Unlike a few decades ago, the majority of households in Canada with children six years old and under now have both parents working full-time. Many families do not have relatives or friends who are able to take on child-care duties for these two weeks, nor are children allowed to stay in a daycare for pre-school-aged children once they are old enough to enter kindergarten. This leaves many families with few options other than having a parent take two weeks off of work.”

Gradual schedules pose challenges for parents

The petition resonates with Stoney Creek Elementary parent Henning White.

This September marks gradual kindergarten entry for his second child. But, because his first started kindergarten at the height of COVID-19 — when things were “wacky” anyway — this is the first time the Burnaby family has been faced with the reality of that two-week juggle.

Because of a high volume of kindergarteners this year, the new students were assigned to two groups that attended school at different times. White’s child was assigned to Group B, which attended from 11 a.m. to noon each day during the first week. Since the family already had to take the older child to school for 9 a.m., that meant a lot of back-and-forthing with both kids.

The second week saw kindergarteners starting at 9 a.m. with all the other grades and then being dismissed in the morning over a series of gradually longer days: at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, 11 a.m. on Tuesday, noon on Wednesday.

His family has been able to make it work, White notes. His wife has flex time that she used to cover the first week; White runs his own engineering business out of his home, so he was able to reschedule clients to clear the second week.

But he knows that isn’t the reality for many families who have less flexible workplaces and limited vacation time.

“When you think about the average family or the average employment, you typically get about two weeks of vacation, unless you’ve been there a long time,” he pointed out. “To have to do this right after the summer, two weeks of gradual entry? That’s just a lot.”

'An equity issue': Affordability hits some families hard

Laura Kwong, president of the New Westminster district parent advisory council (DPAC), said the issue is one that flares up at the beginning of every school year as a new batch of parents grapples with the reality of two-week gradual entry.

“There’s a lot of ‘What do I do, how do I find child care, how do I make this work?’" she said. “That question comes up a lot: ‘I can’t make it work; do I have to go?’”

Many families rely on grandparent help to fill in the gaps for that period, Kwong said — but she pointed out that’s simply not an option for everyone. Many are forced to use vacation time, but even that proves complicated for those who may have had to book their vacation days much earlier in the year, before the gradual entry schedule was set.

Add in those families with extra challenges — single-parent homes, those juggling custody arrangements — and it becomes even more complex.

Kwong noted most out-of-school child-care providers can’t cover the gradual entry period for parents because there are too many different pickups and drop-offs to coordinate.

“There’s no one out there offering child care the way that you need it during gradual entry,” she said. “People rely on family, friends — you double-team, tap-in, tap-out child care with a friend.  It’s a burden to put all these pieces in place.”

The biggest problem of all, Kwong said, is that those most affected by the two-week gradual entry period are those who can least afford it.

“The cost for the two weeks is just untenable for some families,” she said.

Kwong pointed out that, for a family on a tight budget, losing paid working hours in order to cover two weeks of child care can be the difference between paying the bills or not in September.

“It’s really an equity issue,” she said.

The petition conveys those same concerns.

“Affordability is a huge issue for families, and they are adversely impacted when one parent has to take two weeks off of work to support a child entering kindergarten on the current gradual entry schedule,” it reads. “We learned from the pandemic that the burden of finding child care differentially impacts women and single parents, meaning this is a policy that differentially affects certain groups.”

Make kindergarten gradual entry optional, parents suggest

White and Kwong both acknowledge that the gradual entry process was put in place to help children transition successfully into school life.

Kwong conceded there’s research showing that “transitional activities” for kindergarten — such as tours, parent meetings and smaller group classroom experiences — offer benefits to students and families.

But she said those benefits don’t stand up to the reality of the costs for many families, nor do they necessarily mean a mandatory two-week entry period is the best approach.

The New Westminster DPAC would like to see the two-week gradual entry made optional, so families could decide if it’s a good fit for them or not.

“For those who need it, it’s still there, but it seems to be the trend that the majority of kids entering kindergarten are coming from a formal child-care setting,” Kwong said, noting many of those children started daycare at much younger ages with much shorter transition times. “That’s not to say it’s not a challenge for kids, but give the kids a little bit of credit. Children are resilient.”

White said not all children have the same need for a gradual transition into school.

“Definitely if you have your child that’s attending a daycare centre full-time prior to starting kindergarten, what’s the benefit of the gradual entry program?” he said. “Maybe a week would be OK, or a few days as opposed to two weeks. … At the end of the day everybody’s different, and everybody’s circumstance is different, too.

“One glove doesn’t fit every hand.”

The petition asks the province to consider reducing kindergarten gradual entry time to a maximum of one week.

“While a longer gradual entry schedule may be beneficial in some ways for some children, we believe the mental health and economic burden put on parents is not worth having it be the standard for all children,” it says.

You can find the petition, Reduce Kindergarten Gradual Entry in BC to One Week, online at change.org.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
Email Julie, 
jmaclellan@newwestrecord.ca

📢 SOUND OFF: Has your family been affected by the gradual kindergarten entry process? Did it help your child, or was it a hassle for your family — or both? What would you like to see done? Share your thoughts — send us a letter.