Aly Richards: With precautions and support, some child care can open

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Aly Richards, who is CEO of Let’s Grow Kids.

I’ve always loved Vermont’s state motto: Freedom and Unity. We Vermonters take our freedom and independence seriously. It gives us the kind of true grit required to withstand snowstorms in October and May. But our independence has never been challenged like it is being challenged now. In the face of this pandemic, our fates are now inextricably linked. Your choices now impact my health, and my choices impact your health. 

We’ve had to shift our mentality from one of independence to interdependence. And it’s working. After all, the second half of our state motto is “unity.” 

By adhering to health and safety measures together, we have managed to dramatically slow the spread of Covid-19 throughout Vermont. Last week, only three new cases were reported across the state and we now have the lowest rates of infection in the country.

Our next challenge to face together is the careful, strategic reopening of our economy, which is also deeply interdependent.

One often overlooked system at the crossroads of economic recovery and public health is child care. Not only does child care play a crucial role in the healthy social and emotional development of thousands of Vermont children, but Vermont businesses cannot reopen their doors without working parents, many of whom can’t get to work without child care. This is the definition of interdependence.

I acknowledge that, for some, this conversation feels premature and the risk of a resurgence in Covid-19 cases is still too great to consider opening child care programs or any other parts of our economy. For others, though, the need to return to work is dire. In the face of skyrocketing unemployment and increasing food insecurity, many families are struggling to survive financially and prioritize the developmental needs of their children at the same time. As Dr. Mark Levine articulated in Gov. Phil Scott’s press conference Friday morning, we must consider the “emotional and developmental impact of isolation for our children, particularly our most vulnerable children.” With proper precautions, a high-quality child care setting can offer critical services, resources, and supports that many children and families need. 

That said, it is important to remember that in these uncharted pandemic waters, nothing is without risk. In the absence of clear answers and guarantees, the best we can do is follow the data and work together to plot a course toward recovery that balances risks and returns and prioritizes the welfare of all Vermonters. While some families may choose not to take advantage of child care just yet even if it is available, it is imperative that we provide healthy, nurturing environments for those families who choose it and those without the freedom of choice.

The state of Vermont has made some savvy strategic investments in our child care system to enable it to weather this pandemic, but there is more to be done to ensure they are able to safely and sustainably serve Vermont’s children and families.

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My Let’s Grow Kids colleagues and I have spent the last few weeks gathering questions, suggestions, and concerns from parents, employers, and early childhood educators, and distilling lessons from programs that have been serving the children of essential workers as well as other states and national partners. Based on what we’ve heard and learned, we’re advocating for ongoing targeted supports for child care programs, including: 

·       Funding to restart and operate safely during this pandemic. The “restart” grants offered by the state must reflect the true costs of additional training, supplies, and staffing levels needed to operate, and must offer programs a realistic amount of time to prepare. With child care programs already operating on razor-thin margins, reduced enrollment and increased costs can quickly push them into the red.

·       Health and sanitation supplies. Ensuring access to personal protective equipment and other needed supplies is an investment in Vermont’s public health strategy to fight Covid-19. Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith’s announcement that child care programs will have access to the state’s procurement process is an important step in ensuring early educators can begin serving children while confident they will have what they need to meet health guidelines.

·       Tuition assistance for families with limited incomes. Even in the best of times, the state’s Child Care Financial Assistance Program pays at a rate that fails to cover the true costs of high-quality care. Vermont should increase CCFAP payment rates and flexibility so Vermont families facing financial hardship are able to access the care they need.

·       Wage supports. Early childhood educators at programs that have remained open, as well as those planning to reopen, are doing hands-on work where physical distancing cannot be maintained. Their pay has never reflected their skill or value to society and, during the Covid-19 pandemic, it also does not reflect the additional risk they are taking or efforts they are making to care for our youngest kids. 

It is incredibly difficult to think strategically and creatively in emergencies when the needs are urgent and resources are scarce, but we must prioritize the health and well-being of our children and their families. When we do this, the positive ripple effects will be felt throughout our economy and our society … one of the benefits of unity. 

I encourage all Vermonters to thank their legislators for making child care a cornerstone of our response and recovery so far, and encourage them to continue to prioritize and invest in a high-quality early care and education system that is accessible and affordable for all Vermont families who need it so we can all play a role in supporting the recovery and increased resilience of our brave, little, interdependent state.


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