Oct 17, 2021

Vermont announces ARPA funding for child care. Providers say it can’t come soon enough

The state is preparing to push $29 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds out to the child care sector. For providers facing widespread staffing shortages and teetering on the brink, the help can’t come soon enough.

“Child care providers have played a vital role in the state’s efforts to recover from the pandemic,” Sean Brown, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, said in a statement. “These grants represent an unprecedented opportunity to invest in, support, and stabilize this critical sector of our economy.”

An online application and tutorial will be emailed to all regulated child care providers by Oct. 22, according to state officials. Grant money will be distributed monthly starting in November, and will run through November 2022 as funding allows.

Programs will have wide discretion over how to use the money. Allowable uses include everything from rent, mortgage payments, utility bills and equipment to mental health support for staff and families.

But providers and early childhood advocates say most of the money will likely go to one place: workers.

“Our immediate day-to-day issue that threatens our daily operations is staffing. Staffing, staffing, staffing,” said Samara Mays, director and owner of Montpelier Children’s House.

Workforce shortages are hitting nearly every sector of the economy hard, but none more so than low-paying industries. Private child care providers typically offer salaries near the minimum wage and few benefits.

At the Montpelier Children’s House, Mays says she pays her educators between $15 and $18 an hour and gives them four weeks of paid vacation — more than many of her peers can offer. But she said her workers — and those who leave — also need health care, retirement benefits, and help paying off oftentimes hefty student loan debt.

The early childhood sector has long been crunched for workers. But providers like Mays say pandemic-induced burnout has further driven educators out of the industry. And that leaves programs ever more operationally fragile when staff need to quarantine after exposure.

“I’m incredulous how it just keeps getting worse,” said Mays. “We’ve had a tough year, but it just keeps getting harder.”

She said teacher compensation is “top of mind” when it comes to how she’ll spend whatever American Rescue Plan Act funds she ultimately qualifies for. But she’s also struggling to figure out how she can entice people to stick around for the long haul with one-time money.

Vermont has directed tens of millions in federal relief dollars to the child care sector over the course of the pandemic, and largely succeeded at keeping the industry from suffering the kinds of losses seen elsewhere in the country.

But while programs open and close in the industry on a regular basis, the state has continued to see a modest — but steady — decline in the number of providers. There were 1,181 regulated providers in December 2019. That’s now down to 1,125, according to the most recent data from the Department for Children and Families.

Sarah Kenney, chief policy officer at Let’s Grow Kids, an early childhood education advocacy group, said her group isn’t seeing a sudden spike in widespread closures “right this moment.”

“What I will say is I hear every day from programs that are hanging on by their fingernails,” she said.

Click here to read this story on VTDigger.org. 

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