Babies & Families: When will playgroups return?

If you had a baby or toddler in Addison County before 2020, you likely have fond memories of community playgroups: eating Ritz crackers with cream cheese in the Memorial Baptist Church basement; zooming around on tricycles at the Middlebury Rec Center; playing with homemade playdough at Weybridge Elementary School; dancing to Raffi songs in the community room at Helen Porter Rehab.

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, it abruptly put an end to playgroups, open gyms and drop-in storytimes, cutting off an essential social and emotional outlet for families with babies and toddlers.

In the nearly two years since then, families have found other ways to connect. In the early weeks of the pandemic, local children’s librarians stayed engaged with their adoring fans with lively virtual storytimes. Many shifted to outdoor in-person gatherings in the summer, and some hardy librarians — lookin’ at you, Bixby Library in Vergennes and Lincoln Library — have managed to stay outdoors throughout this winter.

Others, such as Middlebury’s Ilsley Library, have shifted to limited-capacity indoor gatherings that require pre-registration. Librarians at Lawrence Memorial in Bristol gave themselves a little more breathing room by moving their in-person storytimes into Holley Hall. But those were put on hold with the arrival of the omicron variant earlier this winter.

Some determined families have taken to studying the Middlebury Parks & Rec gym schedule on the town website to find open windows when they can enjoy the space.

The playgroups run by the Addison County Parent/Child Center at various area church basements are on hold indefinitely. And as long as local schools are still restricting entry to the general public, playgroups that used to be held at Mary Hogan School in Middlebury and Weybridge Elementary aren’t an option.

But there’s some good news: As COVID case counts continue to drop, and a vaccine for children under age 5 is expected on the horizon, some local organizations are making plans to restart drop-in programs.

Here’s what we know so far:

Middlebury Parks & Rec is planning to start up its much-loved Tot Time open gym session on Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m. starting March 9. “If all goes well in March we will return to two days a week in April,” Superintendent Dustin Hunt told us. Masks will be required for unvaccinated children under age 5.

At Ilsley, Children’s Librarian Tricia Allen is starting up another limited capacity storytime session in March. “After April break, I am tentatively planning to have three or four drop-in storytimes until we take a break from programming in mid-May to prep for summer,” she said. Allen noted that summer programming — Preschool Art in the Garden, Book Bike Storytime and Bounce and Play Storytime — will all be drop-in style.

In Bristol, Lawrence Memorial Library Director Coco Moseley and Children’s Librarian Marita Schine are hoping to bring back two weekly in-person storytimes the week of March 14, “as long as things keep trending in the right direction re: COVID infections,” Moseley said. Those storytimes will take place in the library children’s room on Mondays and Thursdays at 10:30 a.m.

Additionally, Lawrence Library recently received funding from the Children’s Trust Fund to offer programming for parents and caregivers of children under age 1. “We are still working on the details of those programs, especially how to safely bring infants and babies together,” wrote Moseley. “I hope to launch the programming this summer, but I’m hesitant to move too quickly given the ever-changing landscape. Stay tuned!”

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