Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday announced plans to spend $12 million to help organizations set up 73 childcare hubs around the state. It's an effort to relieve some of the pressure that remote and hybrid learning will place on working parents.
The new programs, which would need legislative approval, could serve as many as 7,100 new children during the school year, officials estimate. They could be located in workplaces, schools, municipal buildings and summer camps around the state. Relaxing rules for existing in-home childcare providers, as Scott did with an executive order, would create another 3,000 childcare slots, officials said.
“We know we need more childcare capacity and we need it quickly,” Scott said. “For many parents, childcare will be a challenge when they go back and forth between in-person and remote learning.”
Of the state’s approximately 60 school districts, the vast majority are planning to have some form of hybrid learning, Education Secretary Dan French said.
Seventy-five percent of districts surveyed reported planning two days of in-person instruction and three days of remote learning. Twenty percent reported plans for four days of in-person instruction and one day of remote learning, French said.
The childcare crunch hits working parents on the days when their children are supposed to be doing remote learning. Creating the childcare hubs and relaxing rules on existing residential childcare providers is designed to give parents childcare options so they can work.
But getting so many hubs up and running in a mere three weeks will be a challenge, as will be getting them staffed and kids enrolled, said Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services.
So the agency wants to provide $7 million in grants to organizations for their start-up costs, as well as $4.8 million to subsidize the cost of the programs for low-income families. Another $200,000 will go to help manage the program.
“We understand these changes need to happen quickly and childcare providers will need financial support to increase caseload in current childcare homes and to develop the community hubs,” Smith said.
The rules on residential childcare homes limiting care to four hours per day will be lifted for remote learning days, Smith said. Permitting requirements will also be relaxed. In addition, the hubs will be allowed to open under streamlined rules more akin to those governing summer camps than childcare centers, he said.
Staff for such programs will still require background checks, Smith said. The organizations would likely have to pay a premium for workers, such as signing bonuses, given the existing shortage of childcare workers in the state, he said.
Scott said he knows that the back-to-school plans are stressful for many families. He explained that experts, including Health Commissioner Mark Levine, support the return-to-school plan, and that there is value in providing children the stability schools offer.
“While we know there is some risk of going back, there will also be long-term consequences if we don’t,” Scott said.
The hubs will not be staffed with teachers, however, and it’s not clear whether kids attending such programs will be expected to — or even able to — participate in the remote learning offered by their schools.
Smith said that hubs are largely envisioned as places kids can go on remote teaching days so their parents can work. He did not rule out that remote learning take place at such hubs, but said it wasn’t their primary function.
The full legislature is scheduled to reconvene next week. The first day of school for Vermont K-12 students is September 8.