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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Vermont Child Centers Fear For Safety After Governor Clears Them To Reopen

Three people stand apart from one another in a grassy field.
Peter Hirschfeld
Cecilia Puleio, Vicky Senni and Lindsey Sterrett, from left, at Turtle Island Children's Center in Montpelier. All three have signed onto a letter that asks Gov. Phil Scott to keep child centers closed until public schools are deemed safe to reopen.

Child care providers across Vermont say they’re being forced into service in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, and they’re asking Gov. Phil Scott to keep child care programs closed until health officials deem it safe to reopen public schools as well.

Scott says the Vermont economy can’t begin recover from COVID-19 until parents regain access to child care, and as of Monday morning, every child care program in the state has been cleared to resume operations.

The owners and directors of 40 Vermont childcare programs, however, have signed onto a letter that says the governor’s decision will “put children on the frontline of a virus … when the data does not tell us that they will be safe.”

“Parents bring me their infants, their toddlers, their 4-year-olds, every day trusting that I am going to keep them safe,” said Jonny Flood, a preschool teacher in Montpelier. “And right now, frankly, I feel forced into coming back to work prematurely and underprepared.”

Flood voiced his concerns to several state officials during a Zoom call Monday hosted by the Vermont Early Educators Coalition, a newly formed group of nearly 200 childcare and early childhood education professionals.

Flood said he’s spoken with providers who feel like “guinea pigs” in a dangerous COVID-19 experiment.

"Our work is to wipe noses, is to change diapers, is to dry tears and give hugs all day, because that's what children need. In our work, we don't have plexiglass dividers and one-way aisles." — Jonny Flood, preschool teacher

Vicky Senni, co-director of Turtle Island Children’s Center in Montpelier, said in an interview Monday that she’s eager to welcome kids back to her nature-based learning program.

She said providers, however, are having trouble reconciling the public health rationale behind their reopening.

“So as far as reopening at 100% capacity, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Senni said. “And that’s what we’re being asked to do, while other businesses are being asked to reopen at 25% of their legal capacity. It just doesn’t add up.”

The governor’s decision to reopen child care programs doesn’t require providers to resume operations. But many owners and directors say their hands are tied: On June 1, the same day child care centers were cleared to reopen, the Scott administration ended the subsidies that have been keeping providers afloat through 10 weeks of forced closures.

Providers say that leaves them with a choice between insolvency or reopening, even if they have concerns about what that means for their own health.

More from VPR: Child Care During COVID-19 And How It's Changing

“We had sort of an honest conversation with our teaching staff about whether or not they should visit their elderly parents, or whether that needs to stop now that they’re returning to work,” Senni said. “We’re all having to make these decisions to not see our families anymore.”

Public health officials say social distancing, use of face masks and diligent hygiene are the only surefire ways to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 in Vermont. And guidance issued by the Vermont Agency of Human Services, according to Commissioner of Health Mark Levine, emphasizes the importance of those practices at child care centers.

Jonny Flood said working with infants and toddlers all day doesn’t exactly lend itself to coronavirus best practices.

“Our work is to wipe noses, is to change diapers, is to dry tears and give hugs all day, because that’s what children need,” he said. “In our work, we don’t have plexiglass dividers and one-way aisles.”

"The math literally doesn't add up, so we can't possibly open our businesses without sustained funding to access the supplies that we need and cover the payroll gaps that we have right now." — Heather Martin, director of Baby Steps in Proctor

Levine said the low prevalence of COVID-19 in Vermont makes this the right time to begin reopening child care programs. He said the guidelines issued by the Agency of Human Services last month come straight from the Centers for Disease Control. 

“We’ve gone along with those and probably taken them even further, so we’re trying to do our best to protect health and safety as this reopening occurs,” Levine said.

About a third of providers have been operating throughout the pandemic — though at a reduced capacity in most cases — to provide child care for essential workers. Levine said it’s gone well.

“In fact, we’ve had an excellent experience with that, and I think it’s gone very smoothly,” he said.

More from VPR: Checking In On Child Care Before June 1 Reopening

Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, an organization that advocates for increased public funding for early childhood programs, said a few days into the reopening, a lot of providers are making it work.

“I have to say how many times I’ve gotten emotional seeing them talk about their preparations, talk about their first day, seeing their kids and families for the first time,” Richards said Tuesday. “It’s unbelievable. There is hope in this story.”

Hope, and also caution, Richards said.

Childcare and early childhood education were tough businesses before the pandemic, according to Richards. And she said COVID-19 is only going to make programs harder and more expensive to operate.

“Programs are going to have to make incredibly difficult decisions about their own staffing, about their class sizes, to actually make this work,” Richards said. “And that’s why we really have to be doubling down on financial support during this pandemic.”

"Programs are going to have to make incredibly difficult decisions about their own staffing, about their class sizes, to actually make this work." — Aly Richardson, Let's Grow Kids CEO

The Scott administration has already allocated $12 million in stabilization funds over the course of the closure period. And last month, it announced an additional $6 million in so-called restart grants, to finance retrofits, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

Heather Martin, owner of Baby Steps in Proctor, said that aid won’t come close to covering the gap for most providers. 

“The math literally doesn’t add up, so we can’t possibly open our businesses without sustained funding to access the supplies that we need and cover the payroll gaps that we have right now,” Martin said.

If the state doesn’t come through with additional funding, Martin said, the childcare industry will hit quickly its “breaking point.”

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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