By: Dawn Irwin
Two weeks ago, Governor Scott held a press conference in which he told in-home providers and child care programs that they have the choice to reopen starting June 1st. About five days later, the updated health guidelines were released. Since then, providers and programs from around the state have been working tirelessly to figure out how to reopen by the June date. Lots of folks are upset, petitions are being signed, protests are being held.
How did we get here?
Let's back up a little bit. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, our governor and state officials put an incredible policy in place called the Stabilization Program. This program provided financial support to in-home early childhood educators and child care programs and schools around the state to ensure their survival through the statewide closures. Without the remarkable leadership and support of our top government officials, the child care industry would have collapsed. Other states around the country are now looking to Vermont as a model on how to successfully navigate through a financially debilitating crisis. Now that we are all caught up, lets jump back to the current environment surrounding reopening.
The governor made his reopening announcement about four weeks before the June 1st date. Since then, guidance and other crucial information that the field needs to successfully and safely reopen has been trickling in. As I said, the health guidance was issued about five days after his initial announcement and another crucial piece of information was finally released on Friday. The Restart Stipends.
At the initial reopening press conference, it was announced that reopening June 1st was a choice providers and programs could make. However, it was also announced that the Stabilization Program would be ending May 31st. This made June 1st feel a lot less like a choice to many in the field. It was also announced that there would be grants available to programs to help with reopening costs. $6 million worth. We also found out that those funds would be used for not only childcare programs, but summer camps as well. Although it sounds like a big number, its actually pretty small. If every child care provider and program received an equal amount of funds from that total, we would all get $5,000. Sounds like a lot. But, let's think about what those funds need to be used for - more payroll to cover extra staff and/or hours to complete the new cleaning requirements, installation of new walls/barriers/etc. to meet group size restrictions, and the purchase of PPE equipment and the extra cleaning supplies needed on top of the normal amount we go through. That $5,000 won't get programs very far. And, that number is guaranteed to be smaller because of the summer camps and after school programs that will also be eligible for those funds. Providers have been given a week to apply for the stipend (they have until this Friday) if they want to be considered for any of the funds. And, magically, that <$5,000 is supposed to cover all of the extra financial burdens facing the field during this transitional period. This brings me to my biggest frustration with the reopening timeline - the accessibility and affordability of supplies.
Remember how toilet paper was MIA for awhile at the beginning of this whole crazy situation? Remember how scary it felt not knowing how long your stash would last or if you would be able to find it when you did run out? Do you remember how surreal it was walking through stores and all the shelves were just empty? How unbelievable it felt that basic items no one usually thinks about were being sold on ebay for hundreds of dollars over their usual retail price? Folks were hoarding supplies, others couldn't find any at all...it was a desperate time.
Here's the thing: this is still the reality for providers and programs.
Hundreds of early educators cannot find the essential cleaning supplies and PPE equipment they need to open their programs safely. Distributors won't sell them products because the child care industry is not designated as an "essential business". When they are lucky enough to find the products and equipment, they either can't afford to buy it in the amounts they now need or they are told it will be several weeks before their orders can be filled.
This is not conducive with a June 1st reopening.
When broken down like this, it is easy to understand why providers and programs are feeling anxious about reopening.
And, this doesn't even include the worries lots of folks, both families and providers, are feeling around how safe and developmentally appropriate some of the health guidelines are.
Hence, petitions and protests.
Here's the thing. We need to be more comfortable having "yes AND" conversations. Not everything has to be thrown into divisive boxes that pit us all against each other.
Let me give you some examples. Yes, the government did a phenomenal thing and showed the world that the field of early childhood education is valuable, important, and a crucial part of our economy AND we need continued substantial support to ensure our industry survives this transition. Yes, some children, families, and educators need to and are ready to get back into the consistent, caring, and nurturing child care environments we create AND some children, families, and educators think its too soon to go back. Yes, child care providers from every corner of Vermont are extremely appreciative and grateful for the support we were given during the closures AND we need to advocate for the safe reopening of our programs.
I know I just threw a rainstorm at you, but now its time to make way for the rainbow.
June 1st is approaching really fast. In fact, its two weeks from today. Instead of thinking about the impossibility of opening that soon, let's think about what we CAN do. We can focus on supplies and how we talk to one another. Here are my suggestions:
1. - Advocate to become a designated "essential business". Accessibility is one of our biggest challenges. If we want to ensure in-home providers and child care programs are able to open on time and safely, we need to make sure there are no unnecessary hold ups in the supply chain. Write to your legislators and urge them to add the child care industry to the "essential business" list. If the early childhood education field were added to that list, supply deliveries would go from weeks to days, meaning many programs would no longer think of reopening June 1st as an impossibility.
I'll even make it easy for you. Copy the passage in italics, click the link below to get matched with your legislators, then paste the passage into the message box, hit send and viola! You've just advocated for Vermont's early childhood educators!
I am a constituent from your district and I am writing to you to bring a concern of mine to your attention. I have recently found out that child care providers are having extreme difficulty finding the cleaning supplies and PPE equipment necessary for them to reopen their programs. I think it is a mistake to make them wait for these crucial materials. I urge you to add the child care industry as a designated essential business so that, like the health care industry, they can access the supplies and equipment needed to keep children and themselves safe and healthy at school. Thank you for your time and your support in this matter.
Seriously, don't finish reading this post until you've completed this simple task.
2. - Donate supplies. Advocating is necessary, but programs needed supplies and equipment yesterday. They can't afford the costs associated with extra supplies needed to follow the health guidelines. I have spoken directly with over a hundred providers and they are all asking for the same things - gloves, cloth masks, disinfecting spray, disinfecting wipes, and hand sanitizer. If you are able, purchase one or two of these items on your next shopping trip and drop them off at a home provider or program near you. If you don't know any programs or providers, email me and I will make sure your donation makes its way to an educator that needs it.
3. - Make space for "yes AND" conversations. Nothing is ever black and white. Everything is always full of nuance and gray area, and that's not even taking a pandemic into account. There are lots of different emotions, perspectives, and experiences influencing the conversations surrounding our transition back into care. Every single one of them is valid. I'm going to say that again.
Every single one of them is valid.
Families need care AND families want to stay home longer. Providers want to get back to work AND providers are worried about the health and safety of themselves, their staff, and the children and families they serve. Isolation is detrimental to children AND physical distancing is developmentally inappropriate. The government kept our industry afloat during the shutdown AND we need even more support moving forward. It is possible to hold more than one truth at the same time. The better we get at having nuanced conversations, the better equipped we will be moving forward.
This isn't going to be easy. But, I don't know a single early educator that chose this profession because it was easy. So, let's do what we do best - think outside the box, advocate for the critical things we need, ooze empathy and compassion, and work together to create the tomorrow our children, families, and fellow educators deserve.
Now, seriously, go write to your legislators. No excuses.
Holly Beckert and Dawn Irwin are moms, early childhood educators, and advocates. Please enjoy reading all about our adventures inside and outside of our classroom!