Kit Harrington: Child care reopen plan is unsafe

Editor’s note: This commentary was written by Kit Harrington, on behalf of the Coalition of Families for Vermont’s Future. She lives in Winooski, and is a mother, educator, and advocate for children and families. 

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Gov. Phil Scott acted wisely, focusing on public health and slowing the spread of this deadly disease. The initial decision to use CARES Act funds to stabilize child care centers throughout the state alleviated a tremendous amount of stress for many families, and allowed centers to remain afloat during these uncertain times. His current plan for reopening and withdrawing stabilization payments at the end of May, however, departs from this prioritization and puts our children, educators, families, and ultimately the state as a whole at risk. 

Child care centers across the state are currently wrestling with a painful choice: financial stability against safety and health. At home, parents must choose to forfeit spots, pay full tuition but keep their children home (an option only available to those most privileged), or send their children back to centers guided by regulatory guidelines that do not address the realities of small children, and in fact, place serious limitations on healthy learning and development. This decision offers the veneer of choice but ultimately forces one; programs that do not open will be excluded from funding support. We need robust support to sustain all families rather than adapt to a short-term strategy that will result in long-term harm. 

We are concerned for our state’s educators. Early childhood providers, many of whom are employed in low-wage positions and lack a substantive safety net, have flooded the governor’s office with letters requesting he reconsider this plan. Many feel unsafe returning to work under the current guidelines, but their programs are in existential peril if they “choose” not to do so. The guidelines issued by the Department of Health also directly say that educators who are pregnant, have underlying health conditions, or are over 65 years old should simply “not provide childcare.” We question the ethics of such a guideline and the implications for other educators in the fall. 

We are concerned for our children. It is far too soon to put our youngest at risk. Even in the webinar released last week with the intention of establishing the safety of the reopening plan, Dr. Breena Holmes stressed how information about Covid-19 changes daily. News of life-threatening secondary infections from Covid in children increases. Small children are not able to socially distance; these centers may serve as hubs to hasten the spread of Covid in Vermont, and must operate under guidelines that severely restrict opportunities for learning and growth. In addition, families with children with underlying health conditions who do not receive financial assistance will be burdened to pay full tuition to hold their spot, despite not being able to attend.

We are concerned about equity. Most schools will have to limit the number of students they re-admit. Without a process in place to ensure that access to spaces is approached in an equitable way, families who need care the most will be left without options. In addition, while we are glad to see that CCFAP (Child Care Financial Assistance Program) funds will allow for families to continue receiving support if it is not yet safe to send their children to school, these families will be forced to make difficult decisions in July when that provision ends. Furthermore, employees currently relying on the federal Covid Childcare Support program are vulnerable to employers who require workers to return to work once centers reopen. Are there more holistic ways of supporting all workers than forcing a “business as usual”? 

We are concerned about the future of our state. Vermont is already a challenging place for young families to make a life. The governor has decried the state’s “demographic crisis,” and yet the high cost of living, few job opportunities, racial inequities, and extremely rare child care spots all stack the deck against young families moving to, or staying in, Vermont. The recent, devastating closure announcement from the long-standing Early Learning Center at St. Michael’s College provides a potent example of what could be a tidal wave of program closures following this decision. For early education as a sector alone, this decision risks collapsing the whole industry, which will have profound long term ripple effects across the economy. 

Scott has already used federal money from the $1.25 billion CARES Act to support this program. Legislators should continue to allocate funds from this stimulus to support the most important asset of Vermont — our children. We need leadership that provides support for educators, children, and parents, and leaves no one (not immune-compromised children, nor older educators, nor lower income families) behind. Without support, many programs will still have to close, and all the funds the state has spent will have been wasted, leaving children, educators, and ultimately the entire state in a dangerous position.

Now, more than ever, we must come together to weather this storm. By providing families and caregivers with access to the resources they need today, we can ensure a safe, healthy future for the state as a whole.

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Correction: This commentary has been edited to remove an inaccurate statement about a child care facility in Brattleboro. VTDigger reported the story here.


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