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As youngest Vermonters wait on vaccines, child care centers navigate shifting guidelines

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Solveig Spring, 4, stands on the porch of her family's house in Brattleboro. Solveig decided recently to wear her mask in the supermarket, even after the town removed a mandate and her mother was willing to keep the mask off.

The Scott administration is encouraging Vermont to open back up after more than two years of dealing with the pandemic.

It's telling Vermonters to leave the masks at home and try to move beyond the COVID restrictions that have been in place.

But in the child care system, where kids under the age of 5 still can’t get vaccinated, there’s a lot of apprehension and confusion about how to settle into the so-called endemic phase of the coronavirus.

A few months ago Stephanie Spring was shopping with her 4-year-old daughter, Solveig.

It was shortly after the town of Brattleboro, where the family lives, dropped its local mask mandate.

More from VPR: Why is it a shot? Kids’ questions about COVID vaccines

Stephanie was looking forward to going into the store without the face covering. But her daughter said she wanted to keep her mask on while they were out in public.

“Was it because you like the mask or was it because of coronavirus?” Stephanie asked her daughter one day recently, in the family’s kitchen.

“Because of coronavirus,” Solveig answered.

Solveig has been in preschool since she was 8 months old. And so a lot of her experience at school has been touched by the pandemic.

And she’s pretty much got it down by now.

“They teach you about other ways to stay safe?” her mom asked.

“Yeah. No sticking tongues out. But we still are doing that but we just don’t get sick, because we’re not close to people when we’re doing it," Solveig said.

"It's all so hard to explain to a 4-year-old that they have this disease that you’ve spent two years telling them that we’re all avoiding."
Stephanie Spring, Brattleboro resident

Stephanie though about that for a second.

“Do you stay separate from people when you stick your tongues out at each other?" she asked.

“Yeah,” Solveig said.

The current wave of COVID-19 that's been spreading through Vermont recently has hit child care centers especially hard.

And an industry that's been facing systemic staff shortages has to now deal with an increase in positive COVID tests among teachers and children.

A spokesman for the statewide child care advocacy group Let's Grow Kids said that while no one tracks outbreaks at early education centers, directors around the state are being forced to make decisions about closing on an almost daily basis.

Stephanie, says it all hit their home recently when the family got COVID-19.

“It’s all so hard to explain to a 4-year-old that they have this disease that you’ve spent two years telling them that we’re all avoiding, and that we’re wearing a mask to avoid and that we’re not playing with your friends to avoid it.” said Stephanie said.

“There’s so many gray areas. So we were kind of collecting information from programs around us, meeting with other directors, seeing what their programs were doing. And then ultimately just trying to make the very best decision that we could to protect all children.”
Moriah Carney, West Bee Nursery School

“And all of these things that we’ve done… I think it makes the disease a little scarier than it would otherwise be for a kid.”

The family’s day care center does not require the kids to wear a mask in the classroom, though as the virus was passed around recently they had the students cover their faces while inside.

Stephanie says she was supportive of the original plan not to wear masks, though getting COVID gave her a new respect for the virus.

“I thought that was best,” Stephanie said about not having the 4- and 5-year-olds wear masks.

“Might it have been have been prudent to shift gears at the start of the outbreak? Probably. But that’s a little Monday morning quarterbacking. I definitely would hope, moving forward, if there’s a couple of cases in a classroom, I would like to see them bring it back temporarily. If there’s an uptick in cases.”

Child care directors across the state had to make decisions based on science and data that were constantly shifting. Since they're dealing with an unvaccinated population, a lot of the state guidelines did not really apply to them.

And at the same time the studies on masking and COVID spread among children have evolved during the pandemic.

Some centers never required masks for the kids. Others had them wear masks indoors or made it voluntary, leaving it up to parents to decide.

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Melanie Zinn, center, listens to a child at The Neighborhood Schoolhouse in Brattleboro.

And the financial decisions made at early education centers are more complicated too.

Melanie Zinn runs three child care centers in Windham County. She says that while public schools can rely on a steady funding source, child care centers are much more reliant on the monthly payments that families make.

“We have to meet the family's needs, but also it's a balance," Zinn said.

"We still have to fund a program to pay our teachers, right? It's all a balancing act. It's been a balancing act — all of us. And it's an ebb and flow of complications, and then like small joys when there's a blip of time where COVID seems to get better. Yeah, we're really praying that next fall it continues to be more smooth sailing."

At the West Bee Nursery School in West Brattleboro, center Director Moriah Carney said it’s been two years of imperfect choices, made with shifting information, often on a deadline.

“Trying to decide what is best for someone else’s children is extremely hard,” Carney said.

“And allowing parents to entrust their most precious gifts to us, and now we have to make this decision so families can go to work — there was a lot of pressure. And there were a lot of nights that you go to bed, crying, wondering if you make the right decision or not.”

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Moriah Carney sits at a table with kids at The West Bee Nursery School in Brattleboro. West Bee started this year with the kids wearing masks, but moved to a mask-optional policy in February.

West Bee started this year having children wear masks, and then moved to an optional policy in late winter.

West Bee is a member of Vermont’s universal pre-K program, which means it gets public money, and is aligned with the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

Carney says that while her board relied on the district to make a lot of COVID-related decisions, the nursery school was not fighting the pandemic with the same tools.

West Bee doesn’t have a nurse or janitor, like the public schools have.

It's dealing with a population that can’t get vaccinated. And when the school district started its Test-to-Stay program, the day care centers couldn’t get testing kits.

And when kids of different ages can’t mix for COVID safety reasons, Carney says it meant taking in fewer children due to classroom space and staffing.

“There’s so many gray areas,” Carney said.

“So we were kind of collecting information from programs around us, meeting with other directors, seeing what their programs were doing. And then ultimately just trying to make the very best decision that we could to protect all children.”

The pharmaceutical company Moderna said last week that it was ready to open vaccinations to kids younger than 5, pending federal approval.

West Bee doesn’t open during the summer. And Carney says that she and her staff are looking forward to taking some time off, and putting their decision making on hold for a few months.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public's reporter for Southern Vermont & the Connecticut River Valley. He worked at the Brattleboro Reformer for 11 years, reporting on most towns in the region and specializing on statewide issues including education, agriculture, energy and mental health. Howard received a BA in Journalism from University of Massachusetts. He filed his first story with Vermont Public in September 2015.
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