Jan 24, 2021

Despite multiple challenges, Vermont didn’t lose many child care slots in 2020

Despite massive shakeups in child care in the last year because of the pandemic, Vermont has lost few child care providers overall.

Child care slots statewide dropped only about 1% last year, Sean Brown, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, told the House Human Services Committee Thursday.

In December 2019, Vermont had about 32,000 child care spots statewide. A year later, just 319 of those spots had disappeared, despite months of pandemic-related closures and expenses for providers across the state.

Officials say that small loss is actually in line with trends the state was already seeing pre-Covid.

“I don’t think we’re seeing an uptick of closures due to the pandemic,” Brown said. “I think what we’re seeing is just a historical trend of the last year, where some programs open up and some programs close.”

But the closures weren’t distributed equally across the state. Four communities reported disproportionate child care losses this year — Newport, where over 15% of spots were lost, Middlebury, where almost 6% of spots were lost, Montpelier, with almost 4% lost, and Rutland with 3.5%.

“What we know is that, even before Covid-19, three out of five of the youngest kids didn’t have access to the high-quality child care that they needed, so any loss is really significant in terms of kids and families not being able to get what they need,” said Janet McLaughlin, chief operating officer at Let’s Grow Kids, an advocacy group for children.

But even those numbers are far better than estimates on a national level. A survey conducted in July by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that 40% of child care providers would be forced to shut down without additional assistance.

“What we see is that Vermont has fared a lot better than the rest of the nation, because we were quick to prioritize child care as essential,” McLaughlin said.

At least some of the loss is pandemic-related, Brown said. About 16% of the closures of the last year cited low enrollment numbers, while this year many other providers noted their own ages and underlying health conditions as reasons for shutting down their operations, he said.

Use of child care subsidies was also down in 2020, to 78%. Brown said that is because many parents were working from home, and as a result, opted not to send their children to child care during the work day.

For years now in Vermont, more registered home child cares have closed than licensed child care programs. Melissa Reigel-Garrett, policy director of the Childhood Development Division of DCF, said the same was true in the past year, though there was a notable increase in licensed programs closing, as well, and the state is still looking into what happened.

But, Reigel-Garrett said, about a fifth of the child care closures last year actually happened before the pandemic even hit. She said the state credits the relatively small impact of the pandemic to all the federal money plowed into child care in the past 10 months.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the state has invested $40.5 million in child care business stabilization funds, restart stipends, hazard pay and relief grants.

Vermont is also likely to get an additional $12.5 million to $12.8 million for child care from the federal government’s most recent round of Covid relief funding.

DCF is recommending that money go toward an open-ended relief grant program for child care providers, Brown said. Of all of the various ways money was distributed to child care providers in the past year, Brown said relief grants turned out to be the easiest — and best suited for meeting a wide range of needs.

In recent weeks, a lot of people have been trying to look ahead to what the long-term changes will be to child care in Vermont as a result of the pandemic, but Brown warned against that kind of thinking.

“I think there’s so many unknowns,” Brown said. “Like, how are families going to continue to work? Are businesses going to allow staff who have the ability to telework, to telework? Are parents who do that going to choose to have their children stay at home with them and juggle those dual demands?”

The point of the millions of dollars spent on child care during the pandemic, he said, was just to preserve and stabilize the existing system. Only months from now, once the state is on the other side of the pandemic, will it be time to think about how the system needs to adapt long-term, he said.

“But we’re in the midst of the pandemic; there could be impacts still to come that we just don’t foresee at this time,” Brown said.

Click here to read this story on VTDigger.org. 

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