School is back in session, but every day thousands of Vermont’s K-12 students attend class online. That’s left working families struggling with the same child care problem they faced in the spring, when schools first shuttered their doors because of Covid-19.
The Scott administration has earmarked $12 million in federal money to expand the state’s child care capacity and fill the care gap resulting from hybrid learning plans, and the state has moved quickly to form regional hubs to care for students in grades K-6 on remote learning days.
But the state’s patchwork child care solution still leaves plenty of families in the lurch, many of whom are balking at paying for care they once received for free through their public schools.
The nearest option for Jessica Miller, whose kindergartner attends school in Jericho, is in Shelburne — a 40-minute bus ride away.
The program also charges $60 a day, a price Miller says she flatly can’t afford, and she doesn’t qualify for state subsidies. She’s keeping her kindergartner at home for now, although she doesn’t think the status quo is at all tenable.
“I’m worried about keeping my job. I’m worried about my employer staying as flexible and lenient as they currently are,” said Miller, who works for a health care technology company.
There were 23 approved hubs in 11 of Vermont’s 14 counties as of Tuesday afternoon, according to Vermont Afterschool, a nonprofit that is partnering with the state to administer the effort.
Costs at the hubs vary widely.
- In the Essex-Westford district, child care offered in partnership with the parks and recreation department is free.
- Part 2 Kids in Shelburne, the program Miller was referred to, charges $60 a day, although owner Jeff O’Hara said the program will discount tuition by 50% for families who say they need the help, even if they don’t qualify for the subsidies. About 20% of all students in the program receive some sort of financial assistance. “We make it very clear to the schools that we work with and all the families that this is kind of our policy that if you need this, it’s available,” he said.
- At the Mary Johnson Children’s Center in Middlebury, the charge is $39 a day for the first child and $31 for the second.
“There’s some very animated and upset conversations about that,” said Anne Gleason, the school-age director for the Middlebury center. Gleason says she’s sympathetic.
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There’s plenty of economic insecurity in her region — and even more now because of the pandemic.
“Public schools are where we try, we strive, for some kind of equity and now that we’ve changed that model, it’s becoming difficult,” she said
Like many parents, Miller is confused about the logic of sending her kindergartner to mingle with a second set of children at a child care center, and worries that doing so will only increase the risk of virus transmission in the community.
“If we’re supposed to be avoiding that, you know, or avoiding having full classrooms, why are we doing this?” she asked.
That question has also been asked by epidemiologists, some of whom have criticized the hybrid learning approach specifically because it requires families to arrange for child care outside of school, and so increases contacts between groups of people.
Vermont’s child care hubs are working with school districts, but are independently managed, and children from multiple schools could feed into a single child care site.
It will be important for child care providers and schools to try, as much as possible, to minimize intermixing between cohorts of children, said Flor Munoz-Rivas, an associate professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.
But she concedes doing so will be difficult. And she thinks, in general, that the best path forward for schools is not straightforward. Bringing all children back to school at once, after all, would in many circumstances require schools to sacrifice social distancing measures.
“The more you expand your contacts outside of this particular circle, you do increase your risk,” Munoz-Rivas said. “But again — what do you do about it is the question, right?”
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