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Providers face unknown as child care reopens
 M Frett  / 

ST. ALBANS – With stricter guidelines in place and a pandemic ongoing, child care will probably look different for the many centers reopening in June – and the response from local providers has been mixed.

Some in the field are worried about the financial challenges of reopening an industry that was already fragile before COVID-19 upended Vermont’s economy and stress about acquiring cleaning supplies at a time when shortages continue to be the norm.

Some wonder how they can care for and teach younger children from behind the anonymity of face masks or manage convincing four-year-old children to socially distance from one another.

For most, the idea of reopening child care services during a pandemic came with a lot of unknowns, leading at least provider who spoke with the Messenger to echo sentiments previously shared even by Vermont’s governor that “there’s no playbook for a pandemic.”

At Georgia’s Next Generation, director Kate Driver said she was concerned with the ways the public health standards attached to the child care industry’s reopening conflicted with centers’ role of teaching younger children.

Under those standards, published last week by Vermont’s human services and education agencies, teachers and staff responsible for child care programming are required to wear face coverings and encourage social distancing between participating children as much as possible.

The mask was a standard Driver took particular issue with, with Driver arguing that, with teachers hidden behind face masks, it becomes a challenge to reinforce different behaviors with younger children who rely on seeing another’s face to gauge a response.

She also said she feared encouraging social distance between children would be an education challenge at a time when students are expected to be learning to share and play with others.

“We’re losing a lot of our teaching component,” Driver said.

Those concerns were at least partially shared by Heather Garceau, the owner of the Almond Blossoms child care centers in St. Albans and Fairfax, who worried about being able to keep younger children physically distant from one another.

“Social distancing is basically impossible,” she said. “Children need to have that interaction.”

Child care centers across Vermont have largely been closed since March, one of the many industries shuttered to most Vermonters as the Scott administration sought to stymie COVID-19’s spread through Vermont and keep the disease’s spread within the state’s health care system’s capacity.

Providers were allowed to remain open during the pandemic in order to serve the children of workers the state had deemed “essential” for Vermont’s response to COVID-19, with roughly 30 percent of the state’s providers opting to keep their doors open through March, April and May.

In the meantime, the state stepped in with funding to replace the gaps left in child care providers’ budgets once nonessential workers were no longer paying full tuition for their slots at local centers – a step officials said would help preserve child care programming for Vermont’s eventual reopening.

Vermont, according to Let’s Grow Kids’ chief executive officer Aly Richards, was the only state willing to take those steps to insulate its child care industry from COVID-19’s economic fallout. It was a step, she said, that likely poised Vermont’s child care industry for a better rebound than other states’.

“That was a really big tool in the toolbox,” Richards said during an interview Thursday.

Adam DesLauriers, who operates the Blooming Minds Enrichment Center in St. Albans, credited the program with keeping his child care center, which typically hosts 75 children and remained open for essential employees’ children, “above water.”

“It could’ve been a tremendous amount worse had it not been for the state,” DesLauriers said. “We would’ve had to close our doors – it wouldn’t have been financially possible.”


Children work on art projects at Georgia’s Next Generation, a child care center located in Georgia’s South Village.

What happens when that tuition support sunsets in favor of Vermont’s $6 million “restart” grant program, however, is a question some providers have been left asking, especially as state guidelines call for providers to dramatically ramp up their usual cleaning procedures and add regular screening for COVID-19, all while absorbing the costs of supplies – if they can even find them.

Richards said she’d heard from providers around the state that there were concerns with accessing cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment – like the masks providers are now required to wear under the state’s guidance or even the sanitary wipes needed for tables and toys.

“Some folks are concerned about the need for safety and sanitation supplies,” Richards said. “They can’t operate without them and they’re very hard to come by, so that has to be fixed immediately.”

Guidelines also call for far more frequent sanitation of objects children come into contact with, as well as restrictions on class sizes and supervision requirements that could lead some providers to have to bring on additional staff.

According to Next Generation’s Driver, the idea of having to bring on additional staff is made harder in the short term by the rollout of the state’s “restart” grants, as child care centers applying through the program will only know what they’ll receive days before their June 1 reopening date.

“The costs associated with the gloves, the extra cleaning materials – all of that is a huge expense,” Driver said. “If the owners knew what that financial package was, the decision could be make to hire additional staff and train them.”

Those sentiments were at least partially shared by Almond Blossoms’ Garceau, who said there was still too little information to know whether the program would support what her schools needed to meet new hygiene standards.

“We don’t have enough information to know whether it’s going to be helpful or not,” Garceau said. “I think pretty much any other program I think is opening has had to pretty much step out in faith and hope the grant is going to be able to backpay what we’re buying.”

Like many other providers, Garceau said she had also wrestled with finding enough supplies to meet the state’s hygiene guidelines. “I have probably spent, collectively, 10 hours dealing with ‘How do I find disinfectant?’” Garceau said.

According to Richards, financial support for the child care industry would have been vital even before the pandemic, with providers often running on thin margins despite self-imposed austerity measures like pay cuts and reduced benefits.

The state faced a shortage of high-quality child care programming before the pandemic, she said, with programs often closing due to financial pressure and as their providers either retired or decided to leave the profession.

The fallout from COVID-19, an easily spread respiratory disease capable of life-threatening illness, underscored the “structural weaknesses” of the industry, Richards said, with thin margins potentially becoming even thinner as costs rise and reopening centers were now expected to limit class sizes.

That’s partially why her organization, Let’s Grow Kids, have publicly advocated for additional funds for Vermont’s “restart” grant program, which, while reportedly “flexible” enough for supporting child care providers, likely wouldn’t be enough for the reopening of the whole industry, Richards said.

“We are about to see the true impact in going back to this ‘new normal,’” she said.

What that “new normal” meant was a question for many providers, as well. For Driver, it came with concerns about how to balance early education with stringent standards while, for Blooming Minds’ DesLauriers, it meant excitement as dozens of kids returned to the Lemnah Street child care center.

“We’re definitely excited for them to come back,” he said.

mmonroe / Messenger File Photo  

Tami Dodge runs a home childcare and preschool in St. Albans.

Tami Dodge, a registered in-home provider in St. Albans City and a provider leader in Franklin County, had, like Almond Blossoms’ Garceau and Blooming Minds’ DesLauriers, remained open through the pandemic to children of essential service providers.

Her transition into a wider opening in June will be quieter than others, as the group of eight children she cared for was expected to only grow by one.

As a provider leader among Northwest Vermont’s child care providers, Dodge said she’d heard from her counterparts that some were afraid of possibly having a child become ill, while others were concerned with how to manage keeping children physically distant from one another.

“People have a fear of the unknown and it is hard to try and solve problems when the problem you are trying to solve changes everyday,” Dodge said in an email to the Messenger. “Personally, I have had to take things one day at a time.”

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Welch, Levine talk social isolation and opening care facilities
 A Ashley  / 

ST. ALBANS — During an AARP Vermont telephone town hall, one Vermonter on the call began to choke up as he conveyed the pain of not being able to hold his wife’s hand for the last eight weeks.

Since March 14, no visitors have been allowed to enter long-term care facilities in Vermont—but his wife is descending into dementia. “I am missing the last windows of her life,” said the caller, tears audible in his voice. “When can we start safe, outdoor, occasional visits of loved ones to residents in long-term care facilities?”

This was one of the stand-out questions asked at the May 20 town hall, with Rep. Peter Welch, State Health Commissioner Mark Levine, and Monica Hutt, Commissioner of the Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living, answering questions from Vermonters, and discussing updates on federal action around the COVID-19 pandemic and reopening the state.

Welch opened the meeting by taking a step back to remember the trajectory of COVID-19 in Vermont over the last few months.

“It was four months ago yesterday, January 19, that the first case in the U.S. was recorded. So much has happened in that time,” said Welch, noting that 92,000 people have died from the virus.

As the growth of COVID-19 cases in Vermont has slowed, different sectors of the economy have gradually started to reopen. Welch noted that the economic response is going “to continue to be challenging,” but that more federal funds will be allocated to the healthcare system.

“The federal government has the fiscal flexibility and capacity to step in and try to throw a lifeline to folks. We will keep at it,” he said. “We have to err on the side of doing too much too soon rather than too little too late.”

Levine pointed to “Be Smart, Stay Safe,” the program Gov. Phil Scott has transitioned into following the stricter “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order from earlier in the pandemic, as a signal that life is headed towards some semblance of normal. With that said, he noted that older Vermonters remain one of the most at-risk categories of people likely to contract the virus. “Age is still an independent risk factor,” he said.

In describing the experiences of “free standing” Vermont seniors, those living independently, versus Vermonters living in long-term care facilities, Levine noted that “the latter are more ill on a chronic basis and make up a higher percentage of deaths in Vermont.”

But he concluded that Vermont has been “extremely fortunate” thanks to “proactive and preemptive strategies in place.”

Hutt, who serves as commissioner of the Vt. Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living, emphasized the need to recognize the ways in which COVID-19 has increased social isolation for older Vermonters, while being conscious of how conversations around aging are framed.

Hutt has seen a rise in social isolation, a side-effect of social and physical distancing, especially from working with older Vermonters. “Connection and isolation are two different sides of the very same coin,” she said, “There are a lot of barriers to connection.”

While she thinks part of the conversation needs to additionally reimagine how to make connections, Hutt added that “recognizing how important human touch is and how you miss it when you don’t have it,” should not be excluded.

“The impact [of COVID-19] is hitting every single older Vermonter,” she said.

One of her department’s goals over the last several years has been to reframe how aging is talked about. “This virus could derail those reframing conversations,” she cautioned. “We want to make sure vulnerability is not the only word associated with older Vermonters.”

In response to the caller who asked when long-term care facilities would allow visitors to see loved ones, Levine said that while strict separation was necessary early on in the pandemic to keep the most vulnerable Vermonters safe, Medicare and Medicaid will be disseminating new guidelines soon.

“I feel your pain. You are not the only one,” said Levine. “Reducing isolation is an imperative now… We’re working out the protocol on how to make [visitation] practical and feasible.”

Hutt added that her department received new guidance of Monday of last week and were working towards stages of reopening. “We absolutely want to make this happen,” she said. “People are hitting their point with this, the point where they have to see some change happen. But we have to do it in a way that maintains safety.”

While Welch also noted that $450 million dollars has been distributed across the state in the form of $1,200 federal relief checks, one caller asked how he could find out more about the relief check, as he still hadn’t received his. Welch suggested that Vermonters who haven’t received checks yet should contact his office at (802) 652-2450.

Another Vermonter calling in conveyed concerns over returning to work to the panelists. “I don’t feel comfortable to go back to work even though my company said I have to go back,” she said. “Will I not get unemployment anymore if I refuse work?”

“I think there’s latitude to continue to receive unemployment,” replied Welch, noting that if folks have a health condition that would make them more susceptible to contraction of the disease, they should stay safe.

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USCIS facing $1.2B shortfall
 mmonroe  / 

ST. ALBANS — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which employees more than 1,700 Vermonters, primarily at the Vermont Service Center in St. Albans and Essex, is facing a $1.2 billion shortfall.

The agency, which processes applications for visas and for U.S. Citizenship, operates four processing centers in the U.S., one of which is based in St. Albans. Funding for the agency comes from the fees paid by applicants.

A drop in applications, some attributed to the COVID-19, but others predating it, is responsible for shortfall. USCIS told CNN that the agency expects that when the federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, the agency will have a shortfall in fee revenue of 61 percent.

Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is aware of the situation and is following it closely, with a particular focus on how the shortfall could impact USCIS employees in Vermont, Leahy spokesperson David Carle told the Messenger.

“This is just one example of the many ways the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the nation in ways that are often hard to predict. As Vice Chair of the Appropriations Committee Senator Leahy has been pushing for serious negotiations to begin on the next coronavirus relief package so that we can work through how best way to address these and many other issues, and prevent more harm to Vermonters and the American people, but Senate Majority Leader McConnell has shown no interest, preferring instead to ‘wait and see.’” Carle said. “Senator Leahy calls that the opposite of leadership.”

“In addition, Congress has yet to receive a request from the White House detailing the shortfalls at USCIS and asking the Appropriations Committee to address them, but that has been their MO since the beginning of this crisis,” Carle added.

It is unclear to what extent the crisis in USCIS funding is the result of the coronavirus and to what extent it is the result of Trump administration policies discouraging immigration to the United States.

In April, the administration suspended the issuance of green cards for those abroad seeking to come to work in the U.S. for 60 days. However, the administration did recently ease requirements for H-2B visas for workers who come to the U.S. for seasonal agricultural work.

President Donald Trump began his administration with an effort to ban immigration to the U.S. from a wide swathe of countries, resulting in protests and a series of court battles, which the administration eventually won, but with a narrower list of countries on the banned list.

The administration is currently fighting in the courts to try and implement a requirement preventing those without health insurance or who might someday require public assistance from coming the U.S. Courts have so far blocked that policy.

Trump has reduced the number of refugees allowed into the country and ended Temporary Protected Status for people from several countries. The status is granted to people in the U.S. from countries experiencing a natural disaster or armed conflict allowing them to remain in the U.S. until conditions have improved in their home countries.