Apr 28, 2020

Vermont childcare centers critical to economy post-pandemic: How they maintain readiness

Six weeks have passed since childcare centers in Vermont were ordered to close. Gov. Phil Scott's March 18 order provided an exception for those centers providing care for the children of essential workers. However, childcare has continued as other facilities have maintained operations, even while doors remain closed.

Childcare will be critical to stabilizing the economy, post-pandemic, Vermont childcare advocates say. In order for working parents to go back to the job site, their children need care.

Providers and state childcare advocacy groups met with Rep. Peter Welch in a Monday call to discuss how childcare is going, the challenges they are facing and strategies for reopening.

Providing for "essential workers"

Childcare centers across the state continue to provide care for children, but in a different way than it was delivered pre-COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is the official name of the disease related to the coronavirus that first started to affect people at the end of 2019.

Some facilities pivoted to provide care for the children of essential workers, like those in the medical industry and emergency workers.The state established an incentive program to provide financial support to these centers. Aly Richards of Let's Grow Kids said, "30% of regulated childcare is involved, in some capacity, in the care for essential workers right now in Vermont."

Centers have had to adapt to social distancing policies providing daily care and remote learning, when applicable.

Courtney Farrell of Lund Family Center said it was a challenge to decide to open for essential workers even though care staff were willing. They ramped up slowly to make sure children and families had the support they needed, while helping children who feel out of sorts during this time of change.

Financial stabilization for closed facilities

Vermont was the first state in the country to protect child care centers from bankruptcy through a Stabilization Program, Richards said.

The state program pays 50% of a center's operational costs, while the other 50% is made up by families in the program paying half of their tuition costs, even while their children are staying home.

State funds, financed by the federal CARES Act, have been paying out $1.45 million a week in Vermont, according to Melissa Riegel-Garrett of the state's Child Development Division.

It's a way to keep childcare centers afloat while income has waned, ensuring they can reopen quickly to serve Vermont families. Facilities are using the Stabilization Program money for bills, workers, repairs and professional development.

"All of our staff are working from home to stay connected to the families and we're able to still pay them," said Alyson Grzyb, director of Bennington Early Childhood Center.

Ellen Drolette, who runs a home-based child care program in Burlington, said the time the center has been closed hasn't been wasted — they are focused on professional development, painting the child care room and suggesting activities to families during regular check ins.

Sonja Raymond who runs a child care program in Stowe said it wouldn't be possible to continue without state funds.

Childcare centers change method of care, provide resources to families

In addition to traditional care, some groups are supporting the family at-large. Donna Bailey of the Addison County Parent Child Center said that in order to support rural families, activity boxes have been delivered which include art supplies and toys donated by a Vergennes toy store.

In other cases, food delivery, clothing, diapers, and gift cards have been given out to vulnerable families to help "mitigate the risk and impact" of the pandemic, according to Amy Johnson of the Vermont Parent Child Center Network.

Reopening child care statewide

Remaining financially solvent is one component critical to child care centers being able to quickly open their doors when given the green light by the state.

"I don't think we're going to see any sort of major movement in childcare until about June 1st," Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said during Monday's governor's press conference.

Vermont child care centers and advocacy groups say before that point there needs to be a plan for reopening.

Some of the challenges will be how to incorporate safe social distancing once all children are back in care. Drolette is concerned her home based center cannot accommodate putting children in different rooms to provide necessary spacing.

For centers providing care for essential workers, slots that would have gone to their regular population have been filled by essential worker children. Riegel-Garrett pointed out there may need to be a break between ending essential worker care and reinstating regular child care.

Going forward, the industry as a whole will need to "support children who have experienced all types of trauma" during the upheaval, Farrell said.

Paul Behrman of the Champlain Valley Head Start said reorganizing the system now provides a chance to build it differently. It's an "opportunity to look at full public funding for birth to five services," he said.

Richards said the world got a front row seat of the importance of child care and that it's an absolute necessity, not an accessory. It should be the "cornerstone of any real recovery," she said.

Read this article on the Burlington Free Press website. 

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