Dec 29, 2020

Child Care Crunch: Lack of enrollment, pandemic expenses hit Vt. providers

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont officials say the pandemic has had a major impact on the number of child care providers. Cat Viglienzoni reports that the reduced demand for child care is putting pressure on providers’ bottom lines and forcing many to close.

The Department for Children and Families says there are about 450 fewer spots right now when compared to 2019. That includes all kinds of care, from afterschool programs to child care centers to home-based providers. In that same time period, Vermont lost about 40 programs, going from 1,333 to just under 1,300. Most of the closures were registered home child care providers -- 62 closed this year from January through November while only 25 opened. That translated into a loss of 370 home-based child care slots.

It’s a chaotic ritual -- bundling up squirmy toddlers for a trip into the wintry Williston air. It takes a solid 20 minutes to herd this group outside at Next Generation, a child care provider with four locations. But getting outdoors is a must for Next Generation. “As much of our curriculum as we can do in our outside classrooms -- bundle up everyone and go!” said owner Sara LeBlanc. She says being out in the fresh air is appealing to parents who may be nervous about sending their kids back to child care during the pandemic.

But despite a strong brand, her two newest locations in Williston and Burlington are only about half-full, something that would have been unheard of before the pandemic, when parents in Chittenden County complained of child care waitlists hundreds of names long. “Enrollment’s been a constant struggle. We never know when the phone is going to ring and someone is like, ‘COVID numbers are rising and I’m going to pull,’” LeBlanc said. “I think people are realizing also, if I have to be at home with my other kids doing home learning, what’s one more? What’s two more? We might as well save that money.”

Each child matters, and when spaces stay empty and expenses go up with extra cleaning and staff, the lost revenue adds up fast. LeBlanc is lucky because with four locations she can spread out the financial burden. Her Franklin County locations are full, or nearly full. And having multiple sites allows her to pull staff when needed. Burnouts and sick days are higher now. “Today, this morning, across all campuses, we have three staff called out. But two of them were in the same program. So, we were able to support each other -- Georgia and St. Albans -- because they had the extra staff. If you don’t have that, where are you going to pull from?” LeBlanc said.

That’s the question Kristina Barber asks herself each day. “I get sick, I have to shut down. If my son or daughter gets sick, I have to close down,” said Barber, who runs Little Fawns Child Care out of her home in Essex Junction. The one-woman business allows her to also provide child care for her kids. She can take in up to 10, but right now she only has four. “I’ve been advertising since August for three spots and it’s just unheard of to not get a bite.”

Those spots are her income and state grants to offset the impact of the pandemic don’t come close to covering the cost of running the business. “I remember cracking open the books and really looking at how much I’m losing and it’s like $7,000 to $8,000 monthly. It’s insane,” Barber said.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: That’s no small amount of money.

Kristina Barber: No, no it’s not. So, it puts you in panic mode a little bit.

Next Generation is on a more solid footing and expects when the pandemic is over that parents will send their kids back to child care. But LeBlanc worries whether all the providers will be there too. “We’re going to be full in no time and I know that... and I think we’ll be in a worse dilemma than we were before because so many closed out of it,” she said.

The state did shore up the child care system with grants during the pandemic to try to keep businesses from closing, but both LeBlanc and Barber said the process for applying for the money wasn’t easy and there were strict rules about how to spend it. Both said when they’re trying to run a business and deal with the added COVID-19 safety protocols, carving out the hours to apply for a grant was a lot.

Despite the pandemic, some programs like Next Generation have been able to expand and even add new locations. On Wednesday, Cat Viglienzoni will focus on the success strategies and what it takes to make a child care business work financially.

Click here to access this story on WCAX's website. 

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