The latest report on the state of Vermont’s children adds to the cacophony of alarm bells regarding the care and nurturing of our youngest citizens, especially since the pandemic began.
While there are bright spots in the report compiled by Building Bright Futures – such as increased housing benefits – the declines and vacancies in the childcare workforce and the rising prevalence of children with behavioural, emotional, developmental and mental health issues are of concern.
“The implications of social isolation and stress on children and families are beginning to manifest themselves in the increased frequency and severity of behavioral, emotional and mental health problems for children, and increased burnout for those caring for children and families,” the report states. “These additional needs, coupled with vacancies, understaffing and turnover of essential social services, pose significant risks to children and families in Vermont.”
The issue of child care has been an issue that has been simmering for years, but has come to the fore since the start of the COVID pandemic. Between December 2015 and December 2020, Vermont lost 2.5% of reported child care capacity, a total of 821 spaces, according to Chloe Leary, executive director of the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro.
“We’ve always had this problem,” she said in a November interview. “The pandemic has exacerbated it.”
Currently, about 994 children are served by local programs, but Leary says the region needs at least 115 more slots to address the issue. At the Winston Prouty Center, only four of the six available classrooms are open due to a shortage of staff. Authorized for 68 children at full capacity, the center can accommodate 42 with its four classrooms.
“This year, long-standing labor issues have turned into a crisis for Vermont’s early childhood system,” says the Building Bright Futures report.
The problem, says Leary, is the lack of financial support for child care workers and families who need child care.
“Working with young children is rewarding and exhausting, and involves more health risks than usual in the time of COVID,” Leary wrote in a recent Reformer column. “Wages don’t reflect the value, stress, or risk of the job, and it’s hard to keep people on the job when they can make an extra $3-5 an hour in easier, more less risky.
One of the main recommendations of the Building Bright Futures report is to invest more in the compensation, recruitment, retention, training and professional development of child care workers and early childhood educators. Leary says efforts are underway to achieve this.
Vermont Law 45, which the governor signed into law last June, is a big step forward in making child care more affordable for families and supporting early childhood educators through the creation of scholarships; adjustment or abolition of quotas; and loan repayment assistance. And the Build Back Better Act being considered at the federal level includes several elements to expand child care, including reducing tuition fees for families and creating free universal pre-kindergarten.
Locally, the Windham County Child Care Counts Coalition is seeking to raise $175,000 to create the Elizabeth Christie Fund to give bonuses to local child care workers who stay on or join the estate. Among those Leary reaches out to for financial support is the business community, which faces a myriad of challenges when working parents don’t have access to affordable, quality childcare.
A 2019 US Chamber of Commerce Foundation survey found that even before the pandemic, many parents were postponing school and training programs, turning down promotions, and (sometimes) leaving the workforce entirely due to employment issues. child care. This leaves employers struggling with high turnover, hiring, transition and training challenges, and declining productivity.
Any money donated by a local business to help solve the childcare crisis should be seen as an investment in its own future. Not only would this reduce the challenges of vacancies and high turnover, but it would make life easier for existing employees…and a happy employee is a productive employee.
As for Vermont’s mental health crisis, the challenges and solutions echo those of the child care issue. We all know that for many children, the mental health issues resulting from the pandemic will have both short-term and long-term consequences for their overall health and well-being. This includes children’s ability to regulate and express their emotions; build close and secure relationships; and explore the environment and learn.
Unfortunately, decades of neglect and underinvestment in systems that meet mental health needs in childhood settings have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and need to be addressed urgently.
As the report notes, “The pandemic has highlighted more than ever the need for increased mental health resources and supports in all settings and in multiple modes. As the need and acuity continue to grow, recruiting and retaining the mental health workforce has gone from a challenge to a crisis.