Oct 8, 2020

Despite the pandemic, Vermont has lost few child care providers

Topline numbers suggest Vermont’s child care sector has emerged largely intact from the height of the coronavirus crisis. But providers and advocates warn the industry remains on rocky footing as families hesitate to return and staffing shortages remain endemic.

“We've made this incredible investment to hold on to our child care through this crisis. And we may now start losing it,” said Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, an early education advocacy organization.

There were 1,181 providers offering home-based and center-based child care or after-school programming in Vermont in December, according to data provided by the Department for Children and Families. In August, there were only 25 fewer providers operating in the state, and the bulk of the losses were in the home-based programs that serve the fewest kids.

Vermont’s success is largely thanks to its massive investment of CARES Act money into the industry. The state covered the tuition payments that providers lost out on during the spring shutdown, provided financial incentives to those offering care to essential workers, and later offered programs that were reopening start-up grants.

All told, Vermont has dedicated roughly $50 million in federal relief aid to buoy the sector over the course of the pandemic.

Child care providers outside the Green Mountain State have not fared so well. Thousands are still closed in the Washington, D.C., area, according to local press. The media and researchers also report child care facilities shuttering in droves in Pennsylvania and California. And a survey of 5,000 providers across all 50 states conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children over the summer found that 40% of respondents feared permanent closure unless they get more assistance.

Ellen Drolette, owner of a home-based program in Burlington, said Vermont child cares have emerged “unscathed in comparison to other states.” But she warns that finding qualified staff remains a problem in the low-wage industry, and many programs are still holding on thanks to pandemic-related aid they received earlier in the crisis.

“I think that we have not seen the long-term impact,” she said.

Child care centers also say the pandemic has caused a new problem, too — fewer kids. For years, providers have been plagued by months-long waitlists, but with many families trying to keep their circle of exposure small, programs now report struggling to fill their slots.

“Normally, I would be full by July. But many families have declined child care, especially for infants, which is highly unusual,” said Amethyst Peaslee, director of the College Street Children’s Center in Middlebury.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on both the child care industry’s fragility and its vital importance to the overall economy. Advocates like Richards say they hope Vermont’s relative success doesn’t take the pressure off public officials to address the sector’s poverty wages and high costs to families.

“We've preserved the status quo. That's great. But before Covid, three out of five kids under 6 did not have access to the child care they needed,” she said. “None of this amazing work we've been able to do — which is incredibly important — has affected the underlying conditions of this system that we must fix together.”

Click here to read this story on VT Digger.

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