Monday marked the first day that childcare centers in Vermont could reopen after shutting down for 10 weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. But programs based at the University of Vermont and Saint Michael’s College both announced recently that they won’t reopen.
Both centers blamed the permanent closures on money woes. UVM, for instance, spent $550,000 annually to fill the budget shortfall at its Campus Children’s School. The center served 56 families — though nearly 600 more kids were on the waiting list, according to a UVM statement on the closure.
The center’s location “within a student residence hall complex presents risks in light of the pandemic,” the statement said. “Other suitable campus locations are not available.”
“It is with a heavy heart that we announce this difficult decision,” Scott Thomas, dean of the College of Education and Social Services, said in a statement. “I know that the CCS has touched families in the UVM Community in innumerable positive ways over the past three decades. But the path forward became overwhelmingly clear in light of the circumstances we must confront, and continuing the program is simply unsustainable. I share the sadness that the school’s staff will undoubtedly experience, and we will do what we can to assist them with the transition to other employment.”
The university said it was working with parents to find childcare options.
St. Mike’s called the closing of its Early Learning Center “a heartbreaking decision to make.” The center served 40 to 45 families of both employees and community members, and employed nine staff members and several students, according to Mark Tarnacki, a college spokesperson.
In operation for more than three decades, the center “has operated at a significant loss for many years,” the college’s vice president of finance, Robert Robinson, said in a May 19 letter to parents. That, coupled with the “difficult financial realities” the college has grappled with over the past several years, led to the closure, Robinson wrote.
“We are examining a wide range of options to move the institution to a more sustainable financial footing that preserves and protects our ability to deliver on our mission for our students,” he wrote. “This must remain our first priority.”
Staff members will be paid through June 30 and will receive severance, according to Robinson. Additionally, the college “will continue to work on a case-by-case basis with employees who have childcare challenges due to” the closure, Tarnacki said.
Sarah Robinson sent both of her daughters to the Early Learning Center and one, 3-year-old Cora, was still there and headed for her first year of preschool this fall. Neither Robinson nor her husband are affiliated with St. Mike’s, but “won the lottery” when they first sent their older daughter there in 2012.
“We loved it,” she said.
So the family was crestfallen — and shocked — when they got the news last month that the center would close.
“It felt pretty out of the blue, to us,” Robinson said. “Even though this is a time of really deep economic insecurity for all of us, really the one resource that our family can’t afford to lose is quality childcare. It’s certainly something that we’re willing to make other financial sacrifices in order to pay for.”
Robinson said St. Mike's never contacted parents about raising tuition or other options before deciding to shutter the center.
“The college was pretty clear the closure was immediate and permanent,” she said.
Now she worries about finding a spot at another center. There will be additional competition, with the closure of UVM’s program, and openings are already scarce: When she was pregnant with Cora about four years ago, Robinson started putting her name on childcare waitlists. She’s yet to hear from any of them. Other centers she's called aren't taking new enrollments until the fall.
There’s one intriguing possibility. Robinson said a group of parents and former teachers have discussed spinning the center off into an independent nonprofit. They’ve even talked about leasing the old space from St. Mike’s.
“That’s really hopeful, but as you can imagine … starting a childcare center essentially from scratch with minimal capital and pretty much volunteer might — it’s a heavy lift,” Robinson said. “But the college has been open to the discussion, and we’re really glad about that.”
The State of Vermont provided some financial support for centers during the months they were closed. But many providers told Seven Days that they were worried about the future of childcare in Vermont without continued financial support from the state. Even before the coronavirus, centers operated on razor-thin margins.
"Our revenue is going to be inconsistent and lower than it was before," said Heather Martin, the owner of Baby Steps Childcare in Proctor.
Providers have also expressed concern about the 13 pages of guidelines for reopening, which require that teachers wear masks all day, complete health checks, wash and sanitize play places often, and keep kids separated by classroom. Educators must change drooling babies each time they wet their clothes with saliva.
“We’re now just going to be babysitting,” Kate Driver, a center director at Next Generation, told Seven Days last month. “The educational component of what we do is gone.”
Even before the closures were announced, parents and early childhood educators from across the state formed an organization called the Coalition of Families for Vermont's Future. They penned an open letter to state officials urging more funding for childcare programs.
"Without support, many programs will still have to close, and all the funds the state has spent will have been wasted, leaving children, educators, and ultimately the entire state in a dangerous position," the group wrote.