By Grace Elletson, VTDigger.org
Newly released guidelines from the Scott administration give child care providers a first look at what reopening their facilities will have to look like — if they reopen at all.
Gov. Phil Scott announced May 8 that Vermont’s child care providers can begin to reopen their facilities to all families on June 1. Previously they could only take in children of essential workers.
And while some child care centers say they’re ready to open up again, others are facing challenges that are keeping them closed. Some are unwilling to open because they say it would be unsafe to do so.
“Child care is at the forefront of conversations in Vermont, and across the globe, about how we’re going to restart the economy,” said Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids. “You can’t start turning that spigot without this.”
Richards said her organization has heard “mixed” reactions from providers about the new guidelines issued May 13 which strictly outline how centers can reopen. The majority of providers understand the guidance is informed by public health best practices, she said, but being able to fulfill them completely may be hard to do.
She said providers are worried about how they’re going to secure cleaning supplies required for constant sanitizing when those products are scarce for families and businesses across the country.
The state is also requiring that all child care workers check children’s temperatures before they enter the building and recommends that all children above the age of 2 wear masks. Staff need to wear masks and eye protection. No more than 25 children and staff can be in one room at a time and facilities are encouraged to keep the children spaced out as much as possible — that means no close-contact activities or nap times.
In order to meet all of these requirements, Richards said child care facilities are going to need ongoing financial support from the state beyond the initial bailout that kept programs going while they were closed. The state is planning to prop up child care restart grants for providers, which has a current budget of $6 million.
But Richards says more money is going to be needed.
“Whether we like it or not, it’s going to be more expensive and more complicated to provide child care in this environment,” Richards said.
Nicole Walker, director of Apple Tree Learning Center located in Stowe, said the 25 person per room rule likely won’t impact her facility negatively because it has enough space. She said she’s grateful the restrictions on groups of people were increased from 10 to 25 so her facility can start welcoming back more parents by June 1, although she doesn’t think she’ll return to 100% capacity by then. Apple Tree has remained open to serve children of essential workers.
But meeting mandated staff to children ratios per room may be tricky — she’s planning to hire an additional staff member or two to meet these demands, which will need to be covered by the restart grants.
Walker also said it’s going to be a challenge to find more cleaning supplies. If more children start returning to her facility, more supplies will inevitably be needed to meet the state’s sanitation requirements. She’s also going to need to locate protective eyewear for staff and no-touch thermometers.
“All of these things are really expensive,” Walker said. “These no-touch thermometers, it was $200 for two and they still haven’t come in yet. And I really need eight to 10. And I could only afford two right now.”
At the Addison County Parent Child Center, the burdens to reopen go beyond just securing supplies. Donna Bailey, director of the center, said her facility hasn’t made a final call on whether it will open on June 1, but it’s unlikely.
She said two main hurdles are holding her center back from opening again: First, about half of her staff can’t come back to work because they can’t find child care for their own children. Secondly, parents are scared to bring their children back to the center because of the health risks. She said less than half of her parents are willing for their children to come back.
By allowing centers to open June 1, Bailey said she thinks the state is overlooking the health of its children to get its economic gears churning again.
“I think child care is critically important to the economic pinnings of Vermont,” Bailey said. “But before that, we are about caring and education. And we can’t just plow through the caring and education piece to get the economy going because we need child care.”
“It’s not fair,” Bailey said. “It’s not fair to put our babies on the front lines of this.”
Some child care providers are asking Gov. Phil Scott to push back the date centers would be able to open entirely due to safety concerns. A letter signed by scores of providers, parents, teachers and legislators presents this request to Scott. A protest organized by child care providers is also scheduled to be held at the Statehouse Friday, May 15, to express these same concerns.
“We acknowledge that there are economic realities that make it seem like June 1st would be a good time to open,” the letter states. “We value economic stability and security for Vermonters. We are also advocates for our students and are not willing to put children on the frontline of a virus that has affected so many when the data does not tell us that they will be safe.”
Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, who also signed that letter, chairs the House Human Services committee which took testimony Thursday on how the state is going to support the reopening of child care centers.
Multiple lawmakers brought up aforementioned concerns expressed by child care providers. Rep. Topper McFaun, R-Barre Town, probed Steven Berbeco, deputy commissioner of the Agency of Human Services Child Development Division, about how the state was going to ensure that cleaning supplies were delivered to child care facilities. He also questioned when the agency would know if the $6 million budgeted for the restart grants would be enough.
“If I’m a daycare operator … where do I get my bar of soap, where do I get all my stuff, so I can comply with these guidelines?” McFaun asked. “That’s where I think they’re going to need help.”
“We’re looking to resolve the issue about access to thermometers, cloth facial coverings, gloves and cleaning materials by really as soon as possible,” Berbeco said. He said the state has been distributing thermometers to open providers and is anticipating another shipment soon.
Berbeco said applications for the restart grants are due next Friday. He said once those applications are in, the state will have a better idea if more funding needs to be allocated and how much funding each center will receive.