Parents with infants have a difficult time finding child care in the Mad River Valley. Last week after a showing of “No Small Matter,” a film about the importance of early education, there was a discussion about local child care needs. Providers from Livingston Learning, The Learning Garden and Sugarbush Day School confirmed that they have waiting lists and that they all receive phone calls weekly from people looking for child care for their infants and toddlers. Jenny Carlson, executive director of the Waitsfield Children’s Center, and Amanda Isham, owner of an in-home center in Duxbury, confirm that this is their experience as well.
The screening of “No Small Matter” was provided by Let’s Grow Kids in collaboration with Spring Hill School and the Big Picture Theater. Let’s Grow Kids is a nonprofit committed to providing high-quality child care to all Vermont families by 2025.
In “No Small Matter,” Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, pediatrician, points out that high-quality child care is for brain building, not babysitting, and that providing enriching experiences during this time is important in creating lifelong learners. In the film, the argument is made that providing quality early education is a community’s best possible return on an investment; as important as infrastructure investments or roads and bridges.
“When we invest ourselves in the youngest learners we provide children early on with a foundation for healthy growth,” said Morgan Moulton, executive director of Moretown Education Center for All (MECA). “In doing so we cut back on later-in-life costs of families who have slipped through the cracks, children with needs that were not met early on, or families who don't have the ability to work because costs are too high to send children to child care. If we do not get a handle on creating community for our youngest learners, we will continue to invest money into children later on because they were not provided the foundation they needed,” said Moulton.
“But here in the Mad River Valley, availability and affordability are the top concerns,” said Rebecca Baruzzi, program manager for the Mad River Valley Community Fund. “Luckily our providers are all high quality, if there is space and it can be afforded,” she added.
The local struggle for child care providers is complex. Quality care requires low infant-to-adult ratios: three to four infants per adult. Ratios for 15-month-olds and above are higher: There can be five kids being cared for by one adult. Act 166, which provides for universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, has become an obstacle for centers who need the older kids to make their businesses financially sustainable.
Act 166 has also saved parents money in child care costs by offering at least 10 hours of preschool. Moretown, Fayston, Waitsfield and Warren elementary schools all have preschool programs and Spring Hill is a private preschool located in Waitsfield.
Through the MECA program, Moretown Elementary School has child care available throughout the day, allowing children to take advantage of 14 hours of HUUSD preschool at Moretown as well as Monday to Friday private pay child care. Fayston Elementary School has two half days of preschool and offers private pay child care in the afternoons for those two days. Warren Elementary School offers two preschool classes that are Monday through Friday, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. There is private pay child care for students in the morning program only. Waitsfield Elementary School has three half days of preschool and no in-school child care.
Spring Hill School is a private preschool and has full-day programming for 4-year-olds three days a week and full-day programming for 3-year-olds on the other two days of the week.
Local child care providers, MECA, Sugarbush Day School, Waitsfield Children’s Center, Livingston Learning and The Learning Garden pick up the in-between hours. Scheduling staff to accommodate for these varying preschool schedules is difficult for employees who are trying to pull together full-time employment.
“There are waiting lists for infant care and most of the preschool care requires creating a clever and sometimes desperate web of resources to provide care while parents are at work. Then there is the affordability issue,” said Baruzzi.
The state has added regulations for home care providers and centers that require higher levels of education and certifications. This is to meet goals around high-quality education. These requirements have made it difficult for providers to retain and recruit employees. Child care employees make between $13 and $17 per hour depending on qualifications.
“You cannot live in The Valley making $13 to $17 per hour without being a car failure away from complete economic crisis,” said Baruzzi. “And these positions do not often come with health care and I don’t see how costs can be further added to parents.”
Child care cost for infants at Sugarbush Day School is $1,560 per month. For a student attending preschool at Moretown Elementary School and also full-time child care at MECA, the cost is $668 per month. Other local programs are similarly priced.
The last piece of the child care puzzle is kindergarten through sixth grade. After-school programs and vacation programs are provided in the elementary schools by independent nonprofits. Open Hearth at Waitsfield Elementary School (busing from Fayston), MECA in Moretown Elementary School, and Warren after school programs provide care between the end of the school day and when parents are home from work.