Chronic Staffing Problems Stress Vermont’s Childcare Centers — and the Families They Serve | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Chronic Staffing Problems Stress Vermont’s Childcare Centers — and the Families They Serve

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Published June 8, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Georgia Kennedy with her children, Ruby and Jude, in front of the Greater Burlington YMCA - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Georgia Kennedy with her children, Ruby and Jude, in front of the Greater Burlington YMCA

When Georgia Kennedy's son was born in 2018, she felt lucky to find a spot for him at the Greater Burlington YMCA's early childcare program. She came to love both the center and his teachers. In the fall of 2019, her infant daughter started attending the center, too. Six months later, COVID-19 hit.

The Y closed for several months, then reopened in the summer. Virus outbreaks have occasionally disrupted the center, but this year, her kids' two classrooms have closed 10 times for another reason: lack of employees.

Other days, Kennedy has had to pick up both children early, also because of staffing issues. Daily program hours have been shortened by 90 minutes, but tuition hasn't gone down; Kennedy and her husband, who both work in higher ed, spend just under $34,000 a year on childcare at the Y. Kennedy often works through lunch so she can make her kids' 4 p.m. pickup time. After they go to bed, she sometimes logs back onto her computer to work.

The pandemic has only exacerbated problems with an already broken childcare system in Vermont, where high costs and limited access have long posed challenges for both families and providers. After two stressful years, Kennedy — and other parents with young children — told Seven Days that they feel like they've been forgotten. Centers, meanwhile, are having unprecedented difficulty hiring and retaining staff in a field where many educators say they are undervalued and overworked.

At the Greater Burlington YMCA, for instance, departing teachers have told Marsha Faryniarz, senior vice president of the organization, that they're burnt out. When the program has advertised for lead teachers — a job that requires an associate's degree — it only gets a few applications or none at all, Faryniarz said.

The staffing situation forced the Y to permanently close one classroom last December and divvy up the children into others. In August, two more classrooms will close, though no families who currently attend will be displaced.

The predicament at the Y, which is located in Vermont's most populous city, is playing out statewide. A March 2022 survey conducted by the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children found that 86 percent of regulated childcare centers are experiencing staffing shortages. And from December 2019 through December 2020, the number of people working in regulated childcare settings declined 14 percent, according to a Building Bright Futures report. Many early childhood educators who quit in the early days of COVID-19 decided to leave the field permanently, Faryniarz said. Childcare providers also report more staff absences this year due to illness or workers having to take care of their own sick kids.

There's been some state legislative action aimed at easing the burden for both working families and childcare centers — such as making more families eligible for childcare financial assistance and providing early childhood educators money for scholarships, loan repayments and retention bonuses. But a permanent solution to the structurally flawed childcare system would require an injection of public money to make tuition reasonable and provide early educators a living wage, said Aly Richards, CEO of childcare advocacy group Let's Grow Kids.

After years of organizing Vermonters around this issue, Richards is optimistic that state lawmakers will introduce such a bill next legislative session.

"It's all nibbling around the edges until you pass the big policy framework that includes the money, because almost entirely, it's the money that is the broken piece here," Richards said.

The economics of the current system make little sense to Dani Fuoco, a Hinesburg mom of two. Fuoco's 2-year-old attends First Roots - Wild Roots in Hinesburg, which until recently was known as Annette's Preschool. It's the only full-day, center-based childcare program in the town and serves around 100 children.

Before the pandemic, the center was open 10 hours daily — from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — and drop-off and pickup times were flexible. Now, care is scaled back to 8.5 hours a day, and parents must choose from limited times for drop-off and pickup. Her son's 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. slot proves "a constant challenge" for her family, she said. On the two days a week Fuoco commutes to Waterbury for her state job, her husband must pick up their son. He's a general contractor who's able to make his own schedule but loses out on income when he has to end his work day early.

Despite cutting back hours, the center also raises tuition every year, Fuoco said, and just announced that it will close for another full week next summer.

Andrea Sambrook, owner and director of First Roots - Wild Roots, has a different perspective. Shortening program hours — a change the pandemic initially forced her to make — actually turned out to be beneficial for both children and staff, she said

"Ten hours is exhausting on children [and] doubly exhausting on teachers," Sambrook said. "I've learned that in order to be here, be open, be strong and be high quality, teachers need to feel supported."

First Roots - Wild Roots has improved pay and working conditions for its staff of more than 30. The median wage for early childhood educators in Vermont is $14 an hour, but at the end of last year, Sambrook raised base pay for all staff, including substitutes and cleaners, to $17.50 an hour.

She's also added novel employee perks such as espresso and creemee machines, and discounted on-site tire changes twice a year. The center also rents a two-bedroom apartment in town for teachers relocating to Vermont who are having difficulty finding a place to live. A newly hired teacher from Philadelphia will stay there rent-free this summer while she secures more permanent housing.

Fuoco said she supports First Roots - Wild Roots' commitment to being a great place to work but wonders whether there's any way the center can make changes without reducing care for families. For the system to work for parents, "there's just this huge paradigm shift needed," Fuoco said.

Christina Goodwin, executive director of Pine Forest Children's Center in Burlington, has also taken measures to support teachers. In January, the center rolled out a staff wellness plan that includes fitness and nutritional consultations. Over the last few years, it's also beefed up employee benefits to include dental and vision insurance and dependent-care accounts.

Goodwin also enrolled fewer children in some classrooms this current school year to lessen the chance that the center will have staffing issues.

Early childhood educators around the state seem to be leaving the field mostly due to low wages and lack of benefits, Goodwin said. One of her teachers just relocated to Florida, partly because the cost of living is so much cheaper there. Goodwin recently offered a job to another teacher who ultimately declined after being unable to find affordable housing in the area.

Goodwin is a member of the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children's "Advancing as a Profession" task force. The group seeks formal recognition of their profession and well-defined levels of early educators based on training, with a pay scale that provides fair wages.

This school year, staff at Pine Forest wrote a letter to families explaining their advocacy work around the issue. They asked that the center be called a school rather than a daycare and that parents refer to them as early childhood educators.

Recently enacted legislation could help begin the process of overhauling the field. Act 45, passed in 2021, set two goals for the childcare system: to ensure that families don't spend more than 10 percent of their gross annual income on childcare; and to provide early childhood educators with compensation that is commensurate with their peers in other fields, such as public school teachers.

The law also called for two studies. One, analyzing Vermont's existing early childhood education governance structure and exploring alternatives, is due to the legislature on July 1. Another, a financing study by the Joint Fiscal Office to determine the cost and potential funding sources for a transformed childcare system, is due in January.

Once those studies are complete, lawmakers can start the 2023 legislative session with a fuller picture of what's needed to "fix this system structurally, once and for all," said Richards of Let's Grow Kids.

Rep. Jessica Brumsted (D-Shelburne) is hopeful that lawmakers will act. She has five grandchildren living in Vermont and said she understands the impact the labor shortage is having on both parents and providers.

"We're going to work hard to try to get something to the floor next year that would begin to alleviate some of these issues," Brumsted said. "We have to do something."

Sarah Bassett hopes they do. A rising senior at the University of Vermont, Bassett is an early childhood education major who taught in the Burlington Y's childcare program part time during the school year. She'll be there full time this summer. During a gap year after high school, Bassett taught at a preschool in Massachusetts and realized she loved the work and had a gift for it.

Bassett has noticed a lack of respect for early childhood educators, especially compared to public school teachers. When she tells people what she's studying, they sometimes don't even understand what early childhood education is, she said.

She's talked with other students in the early childhood ed program about their experience working in childcare centers, part of the requirement for the major. One of the common themes is how exhausted many of the teachers seem.

When the Y is understaffed, Bassett said, the job can feel like putting out fires rather than providing the enriching education she knows her students deserve.

Bassett wants to work in early childhood education in Vermont but isn't sure yet whether it makes sense financially. It's a decision she'll have to grapple with when she graduates next year.

"Can I make a living wage doing this work?" she said. "If the state is able to put money into this, it would just be a game changer."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Help Needed"

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