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Most childcare centers closed for virus

MIDDLEBURY — Young parents fortunate enough to have kept their jobs during COVID-19 continue to grapple with a major hurdle: How to get reliable childcare service during a time when most centers have been forced to close their doors — except to the offspring of what the state describes as “essential workers.”
The mandated closure of most childcare facilities has proved a major inconvenience for working families and a hardship to the centers themselves, resulting in temporary layoffs in some cases.
“It’s a balancing act, with safety first,” explained Donna Bailey, director of the Addison County Parent-Child Center (PCC).
It was around a month ago that Gov. Phil Scott issued an emergency order that either closed or substantially curtailed operations for many businesses and industries in Vermont. Among them: childcare operations. The governor determined childcare providers could only continue services to children of “employees of businesses and entities providing services or functions deemed critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security.” 
Scott further stipulated that “healthcare providers and other essential healthcare system employees, first responders and essential government employees with primary responsibility for execution of the COVID-19 response shall receive priority placement.”
According to the Vermont Department for Children & Families’ Child Development Division website, the state will pay a $125 per week supplement (per each essential-worker enrollee) to the provider as an incentive to provide care during the COVID-19 response period.
The state will pay 50% of tuition for all private-pay families, regardless of whether or not they use the service, according to the Child Development Division (CDD) website. Families who want to maintain their slots must pay the remaining 50% — or a lesser amount agreed to by programs and their families. For families who un-enroll, but later want to rejoin, the program is advised to use its usual waitlist process.
Full details about how childcare must operate during the pandemic can be found at dcf.vermont.gov/cdd/covid-19.
The vast majority of area childcare providers closed in mid-March, noted Bailey, a member of the Addison County Childhood Community, an advocacy group for the industry. The decision was fairly straightforward for the PCC, Bailey said.
“They’re asking schoolchildren to stay home, and I personally think younger children need to stay home as well,” she said.
Plans call for the PCC to remain shuttered until mid-June, when Bailey and her colleagues will reassess based on any new information from the state.
“If things change sooner than that, we will readjust,” she said.
Still, PCC is making it possible for program participants to connect virtually. PCC programming is continuing through the Google Classrooms platform for young parents in need of education, employment skills and info on nurturing their children.
Private Facebook pages and the Class Tag app is providing ways for childcare classmates and their families to interface.
“We are able to communicate with individual families in need,” Bailey said.
Also, PCC officials have been periodically delivering supply boxes to families throughout the county. The boxes contain items that can’t be purchased with Women Infants & Children program or 3SquaresVT — such as feminine hygiene products, diapers, baby wipes, cleaning supplies and art materials for children.
“Phone cards are the new ‘gas cards,’” Bailey said of the changing needs of young families during COVID-19.
The PCC continues to review its staffing needs as the pandemic lengthens. The center has to keep all its educators on board in order to draw down state funding for its programs, Bailey said.
“It’s a question of how do we stay afloat and make sure we’re OK,” Bailey said. “Once we’re back to the ‘new normal,’ there will be a lot more families with needs, because they’ve lost work.”
Doumina Noonan is the children’s integrated services childcare coordinator for Addison County. She oversees family support, childcare tuition assistance, and other services to children with special health needs.
“The majority of our childcare programs are closed right now,” Noonan noted. “Although childcare programs are closed, I do know center-based operations — their teachers and administrators — are still reaching out to families. They have developed consistent patterns of contact with families, which is wonderful. So it’s not as if childcare ended and there’s no contact. Programs are making an intentional effort to stay in contact with families.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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