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Staffing Remains A Top Concern As Vermont Child Care Centers Look To The Fall

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Vicky Senni, Courtesy
Vicky Senni is co-director of Turtle Island Children's Center in Montpelier. As state officials look to increase child care capacity for the upcoming school year, Senni said child care centers are already understaffed, short on qualified teachers.

How have the past few months gone for child care centers in Vermont, and what challenges might lie ahead?

Child care centers have been open in Vermont since early June, and so far, they haven't been associated with any widely-publicized outbreaks.

Gov. Phil Scott announced some changes this week aimed at increasing child care capacity ahead of the new school year, when many students will be going back to classrooms for some days of the week while learning remotely on others. But Vicky Senni, the co-director of Turtle Island Children’s Centerin Montpelier, says staffing for child care centers is already strained.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Vicky Senni. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Henry Epp: So I understand you've been operating with slightly lower capacity of children this summer, and you've been mostly having children outdoors. What's it been like day to day since you reopened?

Vicky Senni: We had about two weeks to get ready to reopen. We needed every minute of that. And when the day finally came, we ended up reopening on June 9, we were anticipating a lot of tears at drop off. But much to our surprise, on the children's first day back after three months in isolation, they were practically jumping out of their cars and ready to go.

And since then, they've been happier than I've ever seen them. So we were off to a good start, we shifted our program to be fully outdoor-based. But a few weeks into the summer, things started to change. You know, a couple of teachers elected to leave due to the difficult nature of this work during a pandemic.

I mean, it's hard and strenuous on a regular day. And historically, the field of early ed is under-supported. So we're short-staffed almost every day at this point. I mean, I finally had some time at my desk to get some job postings out there. But on a regular day, we have a serious lack of substitute teachers, and always in early childhood education, we have a lack of qualified teachers.

More from Brave Little State: Why Are Child Care Professionals Paid So Poorly In Vermont?

In terms of the resources and staffing you need to operate safely, looking towards the months to come, what are your main needs?

Well, we do need qualified staff. And that means, you know, people who are willing to really do the work that we've always had to do, which is quality early education. It's nurturing care, and per our licensing guidelines, we need qualified teachers, which either means an associate's degree or a teaching license. It's hard to come by.

We're already pretty underfunded and we don't have enough resources to offer benefits like health insurance. And so for somebody graduating college with an early ed degree or someone with a teaching license, the wage that we can offer is not enough.

So we need, you know, financial resources in order to get those good, strong teachers on our staff. We need resources also to have those qualified teachers, but also to operate with lower numbers because as we're starting to move indoors, as the weather changes and gets colder, we really want to keep our group sizes small.

And so, I mean, do you see that support coming in terms of aid from the state or federal government?

I hope so. We did apply and received the first Restart grant that came out in the beginning of the summer when we first reopened. There's another grant out there that we are working on an application for. It's a competitive grant. So we actually depend on those funds, but we're not 100% sure that we're going to get them.

Gov. Scott announced this week that the state wants to create what they're calling “regional child care hubs” around Vermont. The aim is to increase capacity, and they would use federal aid money to do that. And it sounds like it would require many more staff to be hired all over Vermont to operate these.

More from VPR: Gov. Announces Child Care Initiative For School-Aged Children

Just based on your knowledge and experience in the child care system here, do you feel like the state has the capacity to broaden child care all over and the staffing that that would require?

Honestly, unless part of that funding goes towards pay and health insurance, we do not have the capacity right now. You know, I know you're just talking to one provider right now, but across the board there is an issue of hiring qualified educators, whether that's early ed or after school for school-age children. Where we just don't have the staff for it unless we're going to pay people what they deserve and pay people living wages.

And especially during a public health crisis, we really need to make sure every single person who is working and working with children is insured. And I do think that the state has the capacity to offer that. And that's going to be a big part of hiring and meeting the needs of families across the state.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet host Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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