Jun 23, 2021

Child care woes dog state's reopening

Staff at the Rutland County Parent-Child Center are having trouble finding child care.

“Our staff members are struggling to find placements for their kids, their elementary-age kids, in Rutland,” Executive Director Mary Felton said Wednesday. “We have openings in Brandon, which is a 25-minute drive.”

Members of the early childhood education community around the state say the pandemic has laid bare problems with the field that have been building for years.

“There’s always been a shortage of child care in Washington County,” said Samara Mays, director of Montpelier Children’s House. “We expanded in the last year. Prior to that we were preschool only. Now we’re infants and toddlers. I get a lot of calls for infants and toddlers. Infants and toddlers have always been underserved.”

Similarly, calls to child care programs that partner with Capstone Community Action are up.

“Families are trying to return to work,” Executive Director Sue Minter said. “Our programs are full and we receive calls regularly from people who are looking for child care.”

In Rutland, Sue Clark, director of Little Lambs Early Learning Center, said all 19 of her infant slots are full and she has another 20 names on her waiting list. She said at least some of the crunch is because of child care centers closing during the pandemic.

“There were some good centers that just couldn’t do it,” she said. “We’re in the process of reopening Grace (Congregational Church) preschool, which will open up some additional preschool slots that were lost. We are hoping that will allocate some more spaces for toddlers and 2-year-olds. ... Many home providers closed as well. It’s unfortunate because there haven’t been too many opening or expanding to take up the slack, and not too many high-quality centers. This area’s desperately in need of high quality.”

However, a state report only attributed 12% of child care program closures in 2020 to “COVID-19 challenges.” Members of the field interviewed Wednesday kept bringing up one specific factor affecting the availability of child care.

“If I had enough staff tomorrow, I could open six more classrooms,” Felton said. “I can’t even get one more staff member and I need 12.”

Clark said she recently added a couple staff, but it wasn’t easy to find them.

“It was extremely difficult to find anyone to come in for an interview,” she said. “I think I put an ad in the Rutland Herald and got zero replies.”

Mays said burnout among existing employees is a real problem and that she frequently loses staff to the public schools, which offer better pay and benefits, or to fields that pay the same for easier work.

“Early childhood education has long been underpaid for what we’re asking of folks,” she said. “It’s grueling physically. It’s emotionally engaging throughout the day. ... We ask a lot of them.”

Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, a nonprofit devoted to strengthening early childhood education in the state, said the average wage for staff is $13 an hour.

“That’s half of what kindergarten teachers make and no health care benefits,” she said. “Families are already spending 30% of their income on child care. ... Early educators can’t afford to make any less and parents can’t afford to spend any more. Something’s got to give.”

Richards said she hopes something is beginning to give in the state with the passage of H.171, a bill that increases financial assistance to parents in need of child care, expands eligibility for that assistance, increases reimbursements to programs and creates more incentives for day care staff. On top of that, it orders studies on how Vermont can fund changes to the system that won’t require families to spend more than 10% of their income on child care.

Felton said the bill was “a good start,” but that subsidies could also stand to be more realistic about child care needs.

“The subsidy provides six hours of coverage,” she said. “Everyone I know works an 8-hour day with 15-20 minutes of travel time before and 15-20 minutes of travel time after.”

The provider winds up covering that extra time when families can’t pay for the unsubsidized portion, Felton said.

“We don’t charge the parents the true cost beyond the subsidy ever, but that doesn’t cover the true cost of care,” she said. “I fundraise. I beg. I borrow. I pay my staff low wages. I don’t provide health insurance. Nobody wants to dig into the issue of what it costs to provide real high-quality early childhood education.”

Child care is an issue for more than just the people trying to get it. Mark Foley, owner of Foley Services in Rutland, says he lost at least two employees who had to stay home and look after their children after losing day care during the pandemic.

“Many people in the business community look at this as an economic driver,” said Foley, who helped Let’s Grow Kids lobby for H.171. “We are struggling in Vermont with underpopulation. We need every able-bodied human being to be a part of the workforce. We are hamstringing the workforce by not having adequate child care. ... This was a problems well before the pandemic.”

Miranda Gray, interim deputy director of the Child Development Division of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, said the state tracks child care capacity, which has fluctuated from year-to-year, but mostly followed a downward trend since 2015. It does not, she said, track demand.

“It would be a moving target,” she said. “I think that is something that the financing studies will look at.”

Click here to read this story on the Rutland Herald's website. 

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