State rushes to set up child care hubs in time for school reopening

Students at the Coventry Village School at the beginning of the school year in September 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On Sept. 8, schools will open, some for fully or partially-remote instruction, prompting a rush to set up thousands of child care slots in “hubs” across the state for parents who can’t stay home.

As of Friday, state officials have identified eight potential hub spots, which could accommodate 1,800 children, according to Mike Smith, the secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Human Services. The state estimates that 7,300 children will need care on remote learning days.

The program, which Smith announced Aug. 18, dedicates $12 million in funding to a network of hubs around the state designed to accommodate school-age children whose schools are operating remotely. Smith initially said 73 hubs, each with a 100-child capacity, would be needed in total, but as hubs will have varying capacity, that number is subject to change. 

To be eligible for funding, a hub must be open during remote learning days established by neighboring districts. As they’re established, parents will be able to find hubs nearest to them through community child care support agencies.

At an in-service training last week, Kate McCann, a math teacher at East Montpelier’s U32 Middle and High School, gathered with her colleagues for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began. Child care, she said, was a popular watercooler topic, particularly for teachers who can’t find appropriate care that matches their schedules.

The patchwork of school reopening models means neighboring districts  have opposite plans. Rutland City schools, for example, will reopen for mostly in-person learning, but Mill River Unified Union School District, several miles away, is almost entirely remote. 

Washington County, where McCann lives and teaches, has a similarly wide range of reopening plans. McCann’s hours as a teacher will be longer than days at her daughter’s middle school, which leaves the burden of transportation to her husband. She added that, despite her involvement in the school and the union, she has not heard about the hubs. 

“It’s really unfortunate that we could not come up with a statewide plan for reopening schools,” said McCann, who is also a leader in her local teachers union. “That, really, is a strong message in my mind. My kids go to school in one district and I work in another district.”

As summer camps close, essential workers whose kids attend schools with remote learning plans are asking the same question.

State officials hope the statewide network of hubs will solve this problem. They’ve asked Vermont After School, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for out-of-school child care programs, to coordinate the hubs, to be borne out of existing, expanded care options and new centers, created from scratch. 

The effort began when Smith announced $12 million in funding for the plan at the governor’s Aug. 18 press conference. 

“It all happened pretty quickly,” said Holly Morehouse, executive director of Vermont After School. “The state was moving quickly to respond to the need they were hearing from working families and from the communities. Shortly after the governor’s press conference, they got in touch with us.” 

Holly Morehouse
Holly Morehouse, executive director of Vemont After School. Courtesy photo

Since then, Morehouse and her team have been working to identify child care centers that already offer programs that could expand to accommodate a significant influx of kids — and to identify where new programs need to be created. 

She said the state isn’t waiting to fund potential sites, which helps new centers get off the ground. 

“We’re working with DCF in licensing,” she said, “and they’re working with the Agency of Natural Resources to make sure the building is safe and has the water quality — that it’s an appropriate place for children to be located.”

While Vermont After School has received more than 150 applications from entities interested in participating, Smith said Friday, he “would like to see more activity” in Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, Springfield, Bennington and St. Johnsbury.  

Several programs are already poised to join the state’s program.

Rutland’s Recreation and Parks Department plans to keep summer camp staff on, while also collaborating with Castleton University, which will offer its education students credit for mentoring kids while they’re learning remotely. 

Rutland Rec superintendent Kim Peters said she’s working with the state to secure hub funding for the eight-week program she’s created, called Essential Worker Care. That funding could lower the cost of entry for parents, which is now $899 for residents ($22 per day) and $999 for non-residents. 

“If we receive any sort of funding, that’s going to alter how much we’re charging parents,” Peters said. “I want to be able to provide that opportunity — if we’re able to give back, we want to be able to do that.”

Mike Smith
Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, discusses changes to the state’s child care system at a Covid-19 press briefing on Aug. 18. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

In Chittenden County, Essex Junction Recreation and Parks has organized a similar program. School Age Childcare Director Maureen Gillard said she’s in contact with Vermont After School, and the program may also become an official hub. 

“We have over 700 kids who have filled out the request for registration,” she said. 

While Gillard has a plan in place for staffing, she acknowledges that she worries about finding enough staff, especially because the program will be housed by several different facilities. 

With some year-round, full-time child care staff, Gillard said she already has “a handful of really great, solid employees already on board.”

When it comes to staffing, Morehouse said Vermont After School’s goal is to help the hubs find staff without draining other community child care resources. 

“What we don’t want to do is set up a structure where staff just move from one existing program over to a hub,” she said, “because we haven’t, in that case, solved a capacity issue. We’ve just moved staff.”

Smith, at Friday’s press conference, said the state used $35 million to stabilize the child care system in Vermont during the pandemic. 

“This additional money that we’re spending right now, we want to be extremely careful not to destabilize the system that we’ve worked so hard to make sure is in place,” he said. 

Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, said in an email that the state is stepping up to address what she called a child care emergency. 

Aly Richards
Let’s Grow Kids CEO Aly Richards. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“It is impressive to see the creativity and determination of Vermonters in accomplishing a very hard task in difficult circumstances, which is exactly what is happening with the array of collaborative partners getting this done right now,” she wrote. 

She also warned about a larger child care crisis that predates the pandemic, in which Vermonters’ needs were not met. “We need to use this moment as an opportunity to build a stronger, more equitable child care system that meets the needs of ALL Vermont families,” she wrote.

Morehouse said her team has been working long hours to organize the hubs, and that each will likely come online one at a time, as things like staffing issues and permitting for new spaces are handled case-by-case.

“We are very aware of Sept. 8, the official start to the school year,” she said. “I will say that the state is doing everything that they can to get some of these in place in time for that date.”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Southern Vermont. She previously worked as a reporter for the Addison Independent, where she covered politics, business, the arts and environmental issues. She also served as an assistant editor at Vermont Sports magazine and VT Ski + Ride. Emma majored in science journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was editor-in-chief of the Current. She received a first-place award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in Environmental Reporting for a series about agriculture and water quality in Addison County.

Email: [email protected]

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