Aug 24, 2020

Child care providers face staffing shortages worsened by Covid-19

Despite relief grants rolled out by the state, Vermont child care providers say they are struggling to find enough qualified early educators.

Child care centers, which have long struggled to fill jobs, say the system has been further strained by the coronavirus, and they fear a state program announced last week could make it even harder to find staff.

“We were struggling before to find substitutes if people were out sick,” said Trisha Scharf, the owner of Children Unlimited in Williston. “Now there’s pretty much no chance we’re ever going to get a substitute.”

Scharf, whose program reopened to families of non-essential workers on June 15, said absences required for staff members who show symptoms of the coronavirus have deepened the staffing challenges. She fears her center could have to shut down if a staff member needed to take time off.

“These folks are burnt out doing incredibly difficult work and thankless work and underpaid work,” said Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, a statewide child care advocacy organization.

“We have a long-term challenge on compensation to make sure that we’re really getting a pipeline and reversing this trend,” she said.

The state rolled out a $12 million child care relief grant program earlier this month that is accepting applications through Aug. 26. Earlier in the summer, the state provided child care and summer programs with a “restart stipend” to help cover some Covid-related expenses.

But many programs are still struggling. Richards said centers need more money to provide benefits, such as sign-on bonuses and health care coverage.

“They’ve been on the front lines, taking personal health risks, and many of them don’t have health care,” she said.

Some providers fear that the shortage of early educators could be worsened by a child care hub program Gov. Phil Scott announced last week. It will provide start-up grants for new regional child care programs to serve school-age children. The program was established to serve an estimated 10,300 K-6 students who need care on days when schools are not offering in-person instruction, so that their parents can go to work.

The program, which hopes to set up 73 new child care hubs across the state and will relax restrictions for in-home providers, “will probably have to pay a premium” to hire staff, said Human Services Secretary Mike Smith. He also floated the idea of sign-on bonuses.

If the state program pays higher wages and signing bonuses, existing child care providers may not be able to compete for workers, said Vicky Senni, co-director of the Turtle Island Children’s Center in Montpelier.

“I understand that there are good intentions behind it, because we absolutely need to fill the need for child care,” Senni said. “But it completely ignores the people who have been doing this work on the ground already.”

Senni said she has struggled to find more than one candidate for four jobs she currently has open.

“We’re incredibly supportive of finding care for school-age kids, but if those folks get paid more than early educators who have been at it for months and months and months, that’s a real inequity in our society,” Richards said.

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