With the end of the ski season, and now thankfully, the end of the pandemic seemingly in sight, I finally have a little time to pause and take stock of the past year. Uncertainty and the ski industry (like any weather dependent business) are old friends, but making a plan to operate during COVID-19 was on a whole new level. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that the other major parts of our operation – our restaurants and lodging – were hit pretty hard. However, in the final analysis, the hardest hit part of our operation was actually our childcare program.
While childcare is just a small part of what we do at Bolton Valley, our commitment to it is very strong. Our primary motivation for this commitment is our employees. We know that for some of our staff, it’s our childcare program that makes it possible for them to work. For others, having their children near them is what makes them want to work at Bolton. And without our employees, we wouldn’t have a business.
Like so many other businesses this year, we made adjustments to almost every part of our operation to accommodate the new COVID realities – we reduced points of contact, we moved services outdoors, and we scaled back our offerings – just to name a few. And in most cases, thanks to these adjustments, we made it work. Unfortunately, our childcare wasn’t so lucky.
Over the past few years, we have focused on expanding our childcare operation. We evolved from offering it only in the winter to a full-time, year-round program that served our employees, our community, and our resort guests with access to high quality childcare. We invested in our facilities (with the help of a grant from Let’s Grow Kids), hired on new and highly qualified full time teachers, joined the STARS program, and enrolled many delighted local families who appreciated our nature-based approach to early care and education. Last fall, we were poised to offer pre-school education to three- and four- year olds through the state’s Act 166 pre-K education program, which I am proud to have supported and advocated for when it passed in the legislature several years ago. It felt like the wind was at the back of our awesome and growing childcare program.
But when COVID started to ramp up, we found ourselves really struggling. Our teachers were under enormous stress trying to adjust their operations to the new guidelines while balancing their own safety and that of their families. We scaled back. We shortened the day. We shrunk our teacher to student ratio – but in the end, we couldn’t retain our full-time teachers. Our three core teachers, including our Director, all found themselves torn between their work and their own caregiving responsibilities. The stress and fear of interacting with several families and increasing the risk of their own exposure was too great and our staff fell away. We found ourselves forced to make the difficult decision to shut down the center to all our community kids and barely able to find sufficient staff to care for the children of our employees. The reality is if our childcare wasn’t integrated into a much larger business it would have shut down completely, as any hope of financial balance flew entirely out the window.
And while this is just one story among many – I think it’s a tiny microcosm that illuminates some weaknesses at the core of our system.
First, the childcare workforce is understaffed. Finding qualified teachers and caregivers was hard before the pandemic – impossible during it – and now, as we look to rebuild, we’re facing the same challenge.
Second, the childcare system isn’t financially viable. Even before the pandemic, with all our childcare slots full and not accounting for any costs associated with rent or utilities – our program has never broken even. It is entirely subsidized by the Resort. And outside of the benefit we provide to our staff, it’s not because our tuition is cheap – it’s market rate.
There is quite simply a disconnect. The cost of providing high quality childcare is expensive. More expensive than a private tuition system can bear. Any young parent will tell you that childcare isn’t cheap – very few would be able to afford a tuition increase. As a result, wages for early childcare teachers are often significantly less than for other education professionals and licensed teachers. The result is a scarce workforce with high turnover and limited long-term retention. The cost of providing high quality care simply doesn’t line up with the revenue a program can generate.
And yet, as a society, we now understand how important the early years are to young children’s brain development. We understand that it’s a critical time in a child’s life that will help to prevent many issues down the road if we can get it right at the beginning.
Despite this inherent financial disconnect, we’re doing it anyway at Bolton Valley because we understand the value of it to our business – and because, practically speaking, we have the infrastructure and resources to support it. Few other businesses have the same choice.
As if we didn’t already know, this past year has shown us just how important childcare is — as a critical part of the fabric that supports a stable workforce – and it has also shown us just how fragile the childcare system is in its current form.
Our state is about to be blessed with once-in-a-lifetime resources from the federal government to help us rebuild in the wake of this pandemic. Looking forward, I would like to see Vermont commit to supporting our families, our workforce, and our businesses by investing real and meaningful resources into the childcare system. It would be hard to imagine how families and employers in this day and age could possibly make it all work without universal access to public K-12 education. I believe it’s time to take the next step and build a comparable childcare system that supports every child and every family. As an employer living through this past year, I have come to see how tenuous many parents’ relationship to the workforce is. Without universal, truly affordable access to high quality childcare we will continue to bar many bright, young parents from the workforce and Vermont simply can’t afford the sacrifice.
By Lindsay DesLauriers, Bolton Valley Ski Area. This commentary is part of a collaboration between VCRD, The Times Argus/Rutland Herald, Greater Northshire Access Television (GNAT-TV) and the Vermont Access Network (VAN).