Pandemic brings child care 'front and center'
BRATTLEBORO — As more federal coronavirus relief funds funnel through Vermont, child care providers are happy for their field to be getting some attention and they want to continue shining a light on issues magnified in the pandemic.
“Let’s keep talking about it,” Chloe Learey, executive director of Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro, told U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., during a virtual roundtable discussion held remotely Monday. “I’m worried like you are that we are going to stop talking about it and we can’t.”
“We have to stay on it,” he said. “It’s very significant, the federal support that has been mobilized. We’ve been pushing uphill in Washington for quite some time. With COVID, it was absolutely essential there be a substantial financial commitment but we have to sustain it and address a lot of the problems that are persistent.”
The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) package recently approved by Congress recognizes the importance of having access to child care, Welch said. About $49 million is dedicated to child care in Vermont.
“There’s a great deal of flexibility about how to use that,” Welch said. “This whole question of child care is front and center both in the CARES package and in the rescue act most recently. It’s very substantial. It’s not permanent but there are many of us that are seeing that this is an opportunity to make the argument that’s being made by the Biden administration that infrastructure has to include child care for our families.”
A child tax credit was expanded so that many families in the U.S. will be getting $300 a month if they have children 6 and younger. For families with children 6- to 17-years-old, they’ll be getting $250 a month.
Economists estimate childhood poverty will be reduced by 50 percent because of the credit, Welch said.
A child care tax credit for families will be increased to $4,000 for one child and $8,000 for two. Families who previously didn’t earn enough to get the credit will now be eligible for it, Welch said.
Also touted by the congressman were additional subsidies to help individuals cover health care payments through Obamacare.
Welch acknowledged new legislation related to child care is being crafted in Vermont. He said he feels the focus on the field is “long overdue.”
“And we must sustain the progress that we’ve made and not let it evaporate once we get COVID behind us,” he said.
Wages and health care
Trey Martin, chief strategy officer and general counsel at Let’s Grow Kids, listed wages and access to health care as major issues for those working in child care. He also pointed to costs for personal protective equipment as a challenge specific to the pandemic.
“We are putting money coming from the rescue plan to great use in this state,” he said.
A bill passed by the House and being considered by the Senate includes language to make child care more affordable for families by setting a goal of making costs to enroll no more than 10 percent of a family’s annual income, Martin said. He said the bill also increases wages for child care workers, provides all of them with access to health care and makes investments in the information technology system that “helps to undergird all the work we’re doing.”
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Beth Truzansky, Deputy director of Building Bright Futures, said investments in the system are needed now more than ever.
“Families are struggling,” she said.
Truzansky said food insecurity has risen in every county in Vermont during the pandemic, ranging from one in 10 children to one in five children. She spoke of the need to understand how the pandemic has affected children’s mental health as well as their adult caregivers.
“Availability of workforce is at a crisis point,” she said, adding that mental health organizations in the state are reporting 800 vacancies across 10 agencies, an increase of 37 percent from a year ago. “The need for these services is greater, as we know.”
Truzansky said it’s important to have high-quality data to inform decision making. She encouraged requirements of funding programs be as flexible as possible, viewing some of the recent federal grants as being too restrictive at times to meet existing needs.
Janet McLaughlin, executive director of the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children, described being inspired by how early childhood educators rose to the challenges presented in the pandemic. She said she’s glad the work is finally being recognized as essential.
McLaughlin advocated for using funds to increase salaries and offer bonuses to attract and retain employees.
“I think benefits are a big part of this equation, too,” she said, citing paid time off and retirement savings as examples.
She also wants to see a more accessible path for those who want to enter the field and advance.
Vicky Senni, director of Turtle Island Children’s Center in Montpelier, said her program wouldn’t have survived without federal funds made available in the pandemic as it had to adapt to new protocols. More funds are coming to help cover a budget deficit but she still anticipates a $50,000 shortfall. She’s also trying to figure out how to expand hours to support parents’ full workdays.
Senni said a statewide coalition of early childhood educators is recommending ARPA funds be used to issue stabilization payments to providers, create a pool of funds to cover their health care costs or a grant program to cover their health needs during the pandemic, and provide money to them to expand program hours to better accommodate families.
Winston Prouty also was able to stay open because of the relief funds, Learey said. At full capacity, the center provides early childhood education to 68 children in addition to community programs and resources.
Learey said increased costs should not be borne by the families because child care already is too expensive for them.
“If we can figure out the compensation piece, that is critical,” she said, pointing to the issue as a reason she has a classroom she can’t open right now.
Miranda Gray, interim deputy commissioner for the Child Development Division of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, said $54.1 million has gone into the early childhood field since the start of the pandemic, beginning with stabilization funds then hazard pay and other grants later on. She helped manage the state’s child care hub program, which partnered with existing providers to set up more sites for children needing care on days when they couldn’t be in school due to COVID-related restrictions.
It’s unclear what the need for families will be in the future because some parents will have more flexible work schedules or will be able to work remotely, she said.
by Chris Mays