Gov. Phil Scott ordered schools Tuesday night to provide childcare for essential workers, even as they prepared to close down for regular instruction and send students home.
The directive left schools scrambling to create programs Wednesday, the first day of a statewide closure of prekindergarten to 12th-grade schools that will last until at least April 6. And the order was criticized by the state's teachers union, which complained it had no say in the plans.
The governor announced the closures Sunday to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Tuesday's follow-up was designed to help ensure that people, including health care workers, first responders and activated Vermont National Guard personnel, would not be sidelined to care for their school-aged children.
The directive also urged childcare centers to close normal operations but continue to provide care exclusively for essential workers.
At a press conference Wednesday morning in Montpelier, Scott said he realized that even as he asked "many to step back to help slow the spread of this virus, we're asking others, including educators and childcare providers, to step up."
The directive asks schools to set up the programs based on feedback and need from parents, and plan to use "multiple facilities to minimize the number of children and staff per facility." Childcare must be offered to students up to eighth grade.
To reduce the risk, childcare classrooms must be limited to 10 children with no large group activities. Volunteers are not allowed to visit, and strict hand-washing and cleaning protocols were outlined.
Schools worked to create programs Wednesday.
In Burlington, school superintendent Yaw Obeng said the district surveyed families from prekindergarten to fifth grade about need. The current plan was to use district staff other than teachers to provide care, "but we are exploring all options," Obeng said via email.
He added that "once we have more data around our community needs, we will be able to have a better idea of exactly how many staff and locations we will need."
The statewide teachers union balked at the idea of teachers being pressed into service for childcare without a choice.
"You were probably as surprised — and shocked — as I was to read about the governor’s order enlisting educators to provide childcare for the children of nurses, firefighters, public health employees and others who are the front line of the pandemic response," Vermont-National Education Association president Don Tinney wrote to members Wednesday.
Tinney told members that the union would "insist that this program be completely voluntary" and that "it respects the latest health and safety protocols."
At Wednesday's press conference, Scott said he understood that not everyone could step up to help with the school-based childcare effort and said "that's OK."
Vermont Education Secretary Dan French was also at the press conference and acknowledged that the directive came with "labor issues."
"We are asking a lot of our education labor force during this state of emergency," French said.
But no teachers or childcare workers will be required to go into public buildings to staff programs if they have a serious physical or mental health condition, he said. That includes people with a compromised immune system or teachers who live with someone in that situation. Teachers who are over the age of 60, caring for infants, or who are pregnant would also be exempt. So would teachers who feel anxiety about providing childcare, French said.
Even as Scott and members of his administration outlined the directive during the press conference, they admitted that aspects could change.
The language puts schools in the driver's seat to develop staffing plans, location of care and meal support. Schools should offer care during regular school hours and are strongly encouraged to offer after-school services. The programs should offer academic activities consistent with the school's "continuity education plan" for all students, according to the guidance.
Tinney, at the teacher's union, criticized the rollout of the directive.
"While we agree that all of us have a role to play in these trying times, the governor’s decision to not involve us in these discussions was ill-advised and seriously disappointing," he wrote.
Scott, meanwhile, predicted Vermonters would come together just as they did after Tropical Storm Irene battered the state in 2011.
"We are all in this together, and we will get through it," Scott said.