Coalition tracks impact of COVID-19 on child care

By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer. Published September 8, 2020

BRATTLEBORO — Surveys of local employers and families about child care in 2018 and during this year’s coronavirus pandemic show many of the same challenges persist and new ones exist.

“Access to child care is important for families and employers, and when it is unavailable or inadequate the impacts are felt by both,” said Chloe Learey, executive director of the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development. “COVID has magnified the challenges that already existed — not enough spots, costs a lot, creates stress for families, which in turn causes problems for employers.”

The Child Care Counts Coalition, which describes itself as being dedicated to stabilizing and increasing the number of available slots for high quality child care in Windham County, conducted the surveys. Learey created the coalition to come up with solutions to issues in the industry.

Wanting to track changes over time, the group used most of the same questions from 2018 when it surveyed employers and families last month. Some pandemic-specific questions also were added.

“It was a smaller response than we expected but also, people had been surveyed to death during this period,” said Margaret Atkinson, director of development and community relations, referring to feedback sought on school reopening plans and food security.

Parent and caregiver surveys were answered by 35 people last month, compared with 129 in 2018. Fifteen businesses responded to the employee survey last month, whereas 36 did last time.

Sole proprietors were new to the group but brick and mortar businesses, restaurants and the Mount Snow ski resort were missing this time. About 73 percent of the employers were deemed to be “essential” during Vermont’s state of emergency, a figure Atkinson called “unexpectedly high.”

“Out of that group, three-quarters of them didn’t know there were actually supports in place from the state to support their employees around child care,” she said. “That was a little distressing.”

The same percentage of the employers said they weren’t aware of what their staff were doing for child care during the pandemic.

A report from the coalition states despite 60 percent of the employers reporting that they offered some flexibility and 33 percent of them saying they offered a lot, most of them “noted an impact to productivity as a result of childcare issues both before and during the pandemic state of emergency.”

Several employers said it’s difficult to know exactly how productivity was affected by child care due to employees working remotely in the pandemic.

“In both time periods, we were seeing parents had to miss work, arrive late, reduce hours and spend time on the telephone dealing with child care issues,” Atkinson said.

About 13 percent of the businesses reported having laid-off employees who declined to come back to work due to child care issues.

The latest survey showed employers reporting to have more benefits available to support staff with child care needs than they did two years ago.

Those with flexible spending benefits for child care costs rose from about 30 percent to more than 70 percent. Those offering paid leave went from about 75 percent to 85 percent. And about 70 percent of employers said they had remote working options, compared to 30 percent in 2018.

“The big change there is that in this post-COVID era, 72 percent of businesses would now consider doing things like subsidized child care,” Atkinson said. “In some ways, the landscape got a little bit better for parents over the last few years.”

Citing comments from the surveys, she said employers indicated they tried to give as much flexibility as possible to their employees. But she noted some jobs can never be done from home.

Most of the parent or guardian respondents are females who are 35- to 50-years old, employed full time and live in Brattleboro with a partner or spouse who is also employed full-time with a household income higher than $75,000. About half of them were considered essential workers. “Even though 76 percent of respondents say they have ‘Some’ or ‘A lot of flexibility’ at work many found childcare to be a consistent source of stress before the state of emergency with numbers even higher after March 2020,” states the report.

Atkinson said families finding child care to be “very challenging” went from 21 percent in 2018 to 19 percent in the 2019/pre-COVID time to 35 percent in the pandemic.

Whereas the main barriers previously involved cost, transportation or lack of care for the age group, the latest survey shows lack of care available during the time needed and concern about safety to be the biggest challenges. Atkinson noted the change could have to do with the greater affluence of respondents in the latest survey.

The average monthly cost of child care for the surveyed families is $583, although some pay nothing and others pay as much as $3,000.

“A lot of that depends on how many kids you have,” Atkinson said. “But child care is pretty expensive.”

Chloe Learey, executive director of Winston Prouty, worries that the need for women to take on more child care responsibilities in the pandemic will further set them back in terms of career advancement and earning power.

“It’s a big regression, I think, except for if people really start to realize how important it is and start to raise the profile,” she said. “The state has been really great in supporting the system at least up to now.”

She sees the survey results as further proof of the need for investment in child care.

Stephanie Spring picks up her 2-year-old daughter, Solveig, from the Winston Prouty Center, in Brattleboro, Vt., on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020.

Finding slots

Kristy Rose, child care referral and food program specialist at Winston Prouty, said she’s talked with 11 families who have 17 school-aged children in need of care for the coming school year.

“Just like I do for summer camp, I’ve created a list I provide to each family who contacts us,” she said. “If I’m sending them the list, it means I know these programs have reported having openings at this time.”

Rose and others at Winston Prouty are trying to connect with groups who are applying for state funding to operate “regional childcare hubs” to help on days where schools are offering fully remote learning and groups expanding their licenses to accommodate school-aged children. Gov. Phil Scott recently signed an executive order modifying state regulations to eliminate a restriction limiting registered in-home child care programs to only four hours of care per day for school-aged children.

Atkinson said programs are operating with limited occupancy due to public health guidelines, making what’s available smaller.

“I’m always in between, working with families who have to work, maybe they have really long hours, and then working with these providers who working from 7 to 5:30 is a long day and they have their own families too,” Rose said. “And they are trying to keep themselves and their families safe too.”

She said child care workers don’t get paid enough and work “extreme hours.”

As of Thursday, Rose knew of eight licensed programs offering care locally for school-aged children. Four are offering full day programming.

Learey anticipates a point could be reached where the region runs out of available child care slots. She said her group would then need to convene “a community conversation.”

“We would be part of figuring out that solution,” she said. “It’s not like we’ll magically come up with slots.”

She said she has no idea where the idea for child care hubs came from.

“I can’t find anybody who’s taking credit for that idea,” she said. “It’s a great example of people wanting to help but it’s very challenging.”

Her group plans to aid in coordinating efforts. She hopes the new initiative will lead to positive developments in the industry.

Learey said Meeting Waters YMCA, the largest after-school program provider in the region, is applying to the state to become a hub.

“It’s looking pretty definite,” said Sue Fortier, executive director of Meeting Waters YMCA. “Hopefully the funding comes through.”

Her group is looking at space on the Prouty campus in Brattleboro and a location in Bellows Falls to offer new programs. Fortier anticipates 40 to 45 children could be accommodated in Brattleboro and 15 could be served in Bellows Falls.

The hope is to start Sept. 14. Enrollment is open on meetingwatersymca.org.

“The state and Vermont Afterschool are doing their best to get this going quickly even though really, the announcement was made a short while ago,” Fortier said. “It’s very clear we are offering opportunities for youth to log on and do their schooling, however — even according to the grant — we can’t be a substitution for school.”

She said the priority will be on children enrolled for the hybrid model of classes, where students get a mix of in-person and remote instruction, and whose parents are essential workers.

Last week, the town of Brattleboro announced the creation of Gibson Aiken Day Camp in which K-6 students will receive help with remote learning and participate in different activities. The program is set to start Sept. 14, running Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m, at a rate of $25 per child each day for residents and $30 for nonresidents.

Carol Lolatte, director of recreation and parks, described the effort as just one piece of “community agencies pulling together to do their share with the need.” She said state guidelines for the pandemic only allow for the program to accommodate 20 children at a time.

Knowing parents did not budget for the additional expense, the town tried to keep the program affordable.

“We’re looking basically to cover our costs and offer a quality program for parents and citizens in the Brattleboro area,” Lolatte said.

Staff from her department and Brooks Memorial Library will run the program. Local high school and college students also will help.

At a Select Board meeting Tuesday, Town Manager Peter Elwell said the program is being coordinated with YMCA Meeting Waters.

“We’re looking forward to being able to fill this niche,” he said.

He said whether the town gets reimbursed for expenses of running the program will depend on if the YMCA receives funding.