The Quest for Childcare in Central Vermont

This article was written by two juniors, Evelyn Rocha and Maia Pasco, who are in journalism here at U-32.

 

“We were literally laughed at for starting so late.”

 

Tony Snow, the RISE (Restorative In-School Enrichment) coordinator at U-32 had a difficult time finding childcare for his son. He and his wife started calling in July of 2022 when they expected their son to arrive later that year. When his son arrived in November, Tony took 15 days of parental leave and returned within the same month.

 

Tony’s son, Fisher Snow who is 17 months old (Tony Snow)

 

Tony had previously worked in a school district in Bethel with his wife. The contract there for parental leave guaranteed 12 weeks of paid leave. However, because he and his wife both worked in the same district they were not guaranteed the same benefits under the law. They were only guaranteed the benefits of one person, so if Tony and his wife both wanted benefits they had to split their sick days, giving them less time to spend with their newborn son.

 

Tony wanted his wife to receive all the benefits she could get, but he still wanted to spend time with his baby. He chose to change school districts, which allowed his wife to have more sick days. “I gave up 45 days of sick leave to come here [U-32], and when I came here, [parental leave] was 15 days,” he said. 

 

Because Tony was new to U-32, he didn’t have many sick days saved up, so he only received 15 days off. “I went out in November and came back in November,” he said. 

 

Challenges came with his return to U-32. “I got RSV while working here…I got pretty sick,” Tony said. RSV is a respiratory virus, usually presented as a common cold. Most people recover quickly, but infants and older adults can be heavily impacted and could require hospitalization. Another reason to be cautious with newborns is that they are very vulnerable to illnesses because they are not supposed to be vaccinated until they are two months old.

 

Babies are primarily nasal breathers, so when their nose is clogged, they can’t breathe, causing them to require hospitalization. Unfortunately, Tony’s newborn son caught RSV as well and had to spend his first Christmas Eve through New Years in the emergency room on a respirator, “Super hard way to start off being a parent,” said Tony. “I have a pretty intense experience with parental leave, and childcare is very difficult.”

 

Alden Bird had a similar experience to Tony’s, in terms of childcare. Alden is an English teacher at U-32 with two children who have been through the Central Vermont child care system. In 2019, Alden was searching for childcare facilities before he had his son, who is now 5 years old. Like Tony, he and his wife were also laughed at for starting the search for childcare so late. “I called around to centers in Central Vermont in 2019 and realized just what an incredible shortage of spaces there are,” he said. He believes this lack of care was worsened by the pandemic when many childcare facilities had to shut down due to health concerns.  

 

According to VT Digger, 672 childcare programs in Vermont serve children 5 years or younger and are fully licensed and full-time. This article was published in 2023 and it additionally stated that “over 100 programs could close in the next year.” 

 

Alden said these shortages in childcare have “big effects downstream on the economy, on the birth rate, [and] on opportunities for young people to get early childhood education which is vitally important.” Alden sees childcare as something that has an affect on many different interconnected issues.

 

Eliza Severy is a local childcare provider who owns three childcare facilities including the Central Vermont Children’s Academy in Berlin. She said that none of her locations are ever able to accept applicants. “We turn people away almost daily,” she said.

 

The shortage of childcare in Vermont is also a problem for relationships between families and providers. “There’s so few options that sometimes you get stuck with families, and they’re not happy with you. They’re only with you because they couldn’t find anything else,” Severy said.  “You want parents to subscribe to your philosophy and your mission statement. If they’re there and they’re not subscribing to what you believe in and what you offer, It becomes a very challenging relationship dynamic.”

 

“[Childcare facilities] tend to shut down very abruptly,” said Tony. “Vermont has really high requirements and standards for childcare.” Childcare facilities cost a lot of money to run, and it is often hard to find people with the correct qualifications to work in them. According to Next Insurance, home childcare centers that host 4-6 kids should have a budget of $36,000 to $38,000 set aside. This budget includes furnishings, transportation, substitutes, food and drink, business licensing and fees, phone and electricity, supplies, and so much more. These facilities are inspected regularly by the Vermont Department for Children and Families, and if they do not meet the state’s requirements, they are shut down.

 

As a provider, Severy has a hard time keeping up with guidelines. She said, “You get in survival mode, and if you’re low-staffed, you’re stretched really thin.” Severy said because of this “survival mode” Vermont childcare providers often can’t meet requirements set by the state. “Not because you don’t want to,” she said. “But just because the reality of it is that you’re just barely getting by.”

 

Tony’s son goes to a home center instead of a large childcare facility, where a former teacher takes care of him along with her son. “Our childcare person is great. It’s been a really positive experience,” Tony said. However, the negative thing for him is all the small things adding up Because of the shortage of childcare centers, many places are a long commute away from families. Plus, if a kid gets sick, parents have to leave work early to pick them up. Tony works around both of these issues. Additionally, Tony is sad that he can’t spend more time with his son, “I can’t tell you how much I hate taking him to daycare every day,” Tony said.

 

Alden had a positive experience with childcare. “It’s allowed us to have a family and to be able to retain our jobs,” said Alden. Alden’s oldest kid goes to Berlin Elementary along with Community Connections and the younger one attends a home center. Although the home center is less expensive than an actual center, Alden and his wife still have to pay lots of money for childcare. “It’s pretty much a second mortgage for us,” Alden said. “It’s almost financially beneficial for one of us to drop out of the workforce.” Though it’s been hard on his family, Alden is still grateful for the opportunity to send his kids to childcare, “I would say on balance overall, if it wasn’t for childcare, we wouldn’t be able to balance our family and our jobs…it’s certainly been positive.”

 

Steven Ushakov, a math teacher at U-32 who is expecting to have his first child later this year is currently looking for a childcare provider.  He said, “It’s really important for young children to be exposed to new environments, new perspectives, new people and I think being around other children, other adults that they can trust is really important for their development.” While he has continued his search, Steven has noticed how difficult it is to find affordable and available childcare.

 

In June 2023, the lawmakers of Vermont passed Act 76. A revolutionary childcare bill that makes Vermont a leader in expansive childcare. According to the local Let’s Grow Kids organization, “Starting next year [2024], the bill invests $125 million annually into the childcare sector. It will stabilize our workforce and economy, shape future generations, and create a more affordable Vermont.” Additionally, the bill says that families can receive assistance from the government to cover the costs of childcare. 

 

“You hear right now they’re [the Vermont Government] starting to do subsidies for childcare,” said Tony. “[But] if you can’t get into a childcare facility, you don’t qualify for those subsidies.” Since Tony’s son goes to a house-based childcare facility, his family does not benefit from the state’s new subsidy program enacted by Act 76.

 

There are many benefits for families, but there are some for childcare providers as well. Let’s Grow Kids says, “The 2023 Childcare Bill sets the stage for the state to adopt minimum pay standards for ECEs [Early Childhood Educators] in the near future to ensure that all ECEs are paid equitably.”

 

“[Childcare Advocates] were certainly aiming for more, but what they got was certainly significant,” Alden said. 

 

As a childcare provider, Severy said, “It’s definitely helping…It’s funneled more money directly into childcare providers….I’m paying my staff more. So I feel like we are losing less people.” She said that this boost in pay has helped motivate her staff to work toward training and gaining their credentials. “I feel like when you’re able to compensate them at a higher pay rate, they’re more willing to do these things,” she said.

 

However, she wishes the Act did more to give additional resources to childcare providers and families. “I really feel like kids would do better if we had more childcare options,” she said. 

 

Tawnya Kristen, Executive of Green Mountain United Way, a local non-profit organization that “unites around the health, education, and financial stability of every person in every community,” hopes to improve childcare as well.

 

Tawnya Kristen (farthest to the left) and her team at Green Mountain United Way in Berlin (Tawnya Kristen)

 

United Way has a program, Working Bridges, that uplifts employees in the community. Kristen wants to bring this program to the staff of childcare facilities. “They struggle so much with basic needs and being able to become financially mobile, and advance just personally and professionally. So we feel like this program is super important to support child care through another lens which is the staff and the people that do this work day in and day out,” she said. 

 

Green Mountain United Way’s Working Bridges members (Tawnya Kristen)

 

Financial coaching (guided instruction on how to manage one’s money) is one of the ways United Way would help these employees. “We’re super excited to go into that arena,” Kristen said.

Another option to improve childcare could be to insert it into the K-12 system. “Advocates of childcare reform would like to make [childcare] public like public schools. Make it free to anyone who wants it. Make it a public service [and] basically bring it under the umbrella of the public schools,” said Alden. Alden believes this question of improving childcare is a big issue facing our state.

 

Tony said, “I think one of the biggest hurdles we have with having childcare facilities is paying them. They don’t make very much money but they are highly needed so it’s fully out of pocket for parents. And it’s incredibly expensive. It’s a big part of your paycheck.” 

 

Tony said if childcare was implemented into the K-12 system, “[Childcare providers] would have benefits, they would have retirement, they would have educational standards and training.” Tony also believes that having bigger childcare centers allows for more meaningful connections for the kids, “I think it’s better because your kid has the opportunity to meet a lot of other kids and learn different things.” 

 

This possible integration could also help with safety guidelines. There is a 123-page manual for Center-Based Childcare and Preschool Programs posted by the Vermont Department for Children and Families that explains every regulation for a childcare facility, including safety regulations, instructions for first aid, communicating with parents, helping children with social needs, and more. Tony said, “If it was baked into the structure of the schools that already exist, it would help to finance that [ensuring regulations are followed] and help to have better standards and better quality control across the board.”

 

Steven said, “I’m hopeful that we’re going to make progress and allow childcare to be a viable option for everybody”

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