Child Care Counts Coalition tracks challenges, opportunities

By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer, March 26, 2023

BRATTLEBORO — Nearly 20 community members gathered for the Child Care Counts Coalition meeting, where leaders in business and other sectors discussed challenges and opportunities.

Mona Williams, who handles payroll and human resources at Cota & Cota, said she joined the group about a year-and-a-half ago after Chloe Learey spoke at the Brattleboro Rotary Club. Learey initiated the coalition and is executive director of the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development.

Williams said the subject piqued her interest because she knows the child care struggles facing her co-workers.

“It’s been a challenge and I want to get involved,” she said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Williams described how she had become pregnant at the age of 17 when she was still in high school. She said she doesn’t know what she would have done had there not been child care programs available to her.

When she began working in the early 1990s, she visited seven home day cares in a 3-mile radius, all of which had openings.

“We all know now that’s almost impossible,” she said. “Now, people are getting on lists while they’re still pregnant. … You take whatever you can get so you can go to work. That’s really a hard thing for parents now.”

More workers are needed at child care centers and more people need to run home child care programs, Williams said.

“I love what we are doing,” she said of the coalition, which she joined as it was fundraising to provide bonuses to local child care workers. “It was a wonderful feeling to be part of this group that was able to give a little bit back to our child care workers, especially coming out of a pandemic. And I look forward to everything the Child Care Counts Coalition does in the future.”

Learey said the coalition started in 2018 and it had been sparked by a presentation she gave at the Rotary Club in which she called for community members to get involved in efforts to maintain or increase slots in child care programs.

“This is not a new problem,” she said Wednesday.

Elizabeth Christie of Putney, who served as the executive director of the Windham Child Care Association from 1998 to 2008 and is a trustee of the Turrell Fund for Children, recalled only having enough slots for about 50 percent of the families in need in 1998.

“Here we are 25 years later and we’re still in the same place,” Learey said. “I think the pandemic helped us gain traction on the problem.”

When families were stuck at home due to COVID-19 and parents still needed to work, child care became a central issue.

Learey said the coalition is hyper focused on what can be achieved in the region. The group has surveyed families and employers, assisted when local programs were in danger of closing, helped reboot a dual enrollment program at Windham Regional Career Center that serves as a pathway to jobs in early education, created a video series about opening home child care businesses and established the Elizabeth Christie Fund.

About $55,000 was raised for the fund and more than 30 child care workers received bonuses. Learey called the effort “one of the most heartening things to do.”

Vermont child care workers get about $13.42 an hour on average, she said.

“It’s easy to understand why you can’t keep people in the field,” she said.

The hope is to build capacity in local programs, including at the Winston Prouty Center.

Before the pandemic, the center had six classrooms. When the center reopened, the number was down to four. In September, a fifth was reopened.

“But I have to tell you, we’re going to go down to four,” Learey said. “We can’t find people to hire. We have space. We have a waiting list and we don’t have people. Not to be dramatic but I don’t know where we’re going in child care. I don’t know what the market is going to look like and it’s scary.”

Learey said the coalition is looking to take “baby step actions” to address the big but systemic problems in the industry.

Joining the meeting Wednesday were representatives from Health Care & Rehabilitation Services, the Vermont Agency of Human Services, Back Roads Granola, Brattleboro Savings & Loan, The Neighborhood Schoolhouse, West Bee Nursery School, Windham Southeast School District, Brattleboro Food Co-op, Fulflex and HireAbility VT.

They identified challenges including distance to programs, retention of employees, accommodating needs of employees, accessibility of child care such as hours of operation, sustainability of child care programs, summertime care and respect for the child care profession. They discussed opportunities such as Vermont’s short-term family leave policy, and flexible scheduling and remote work capabilities at workplaces.

Learey said she would love to support a project being considered at the Brattleboro Food Co-op to offer some kind of cooperative child care program for its employees. The Winston Prouty Center provides guidance to families seeking high-quality programs, free referrals to help find the right fits for families, and assistance with accessing Vermont’s Child Care Financial Assistance Program.