When Kelly Hayes, owner and director of the Learning Garden located in Moretown, reduced her days of operation last month from five to four, the news sent parents scrambling. Since 2017, The Learning Garden has offered quality care for infants and toddlers. But, The Learning Garden, like many other local child care providers, is experiencing a staffing shortage that is leading to difficult decisions for providers and working parents alike.
“Reducing our days of operation was not ideal, but The Learning Garden is dedicated to high-quality child care and work/life balance for our staff. Without adequate staffing, I had to make a tough choice in order to continue to meet those standards of care,” Hayes said.
“We were hearing similar stories from child care programs across The Valley and wanted to bring providers together to collectively address critical staffing needs,” said Waitsfield parent Erika Weir as she welcomed participants at a gathering at American Flatbread on Thursday, October 14.
The event, sponsored by the Open Hearth Community Center, brought together more than a dozen participants from local centers that offer infant/toddler, preschool, and after-school care, including The Waitsfield Children’s Center, Neck of the Woods, The Learning Garden, Sugarbush Day School, Open Hearth After School program and the Warren School Kindergarten-Preschool Afterschool program. Let’s Grow Kids, a nonprofit advocating for sustainable, high quality child care in Vermont, also participated.
“Quality, accessible child care is the backbone of a healthy community,” said event facilitator and Warren resident April Smith. “The Valley is fortunate to have many vibrant care options for children. But child care is hard work. Licensing standards are high, wages low, benefits few and affordable housing scarce. Add the pandemic and you have a recipe for exhaustion, burnout and diminished capacity. Those realities ripple through our community.”
According to state survey data compiled in September by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, The Valley is not alone, with more than two-thirds of Vermont child care providers experiencing a staffing shortage.
“Our objective with this gathering was to build relationships, celebrate our care providers and identify a few workable solutions to run with,” said Rebecca Baruzzi, Open Hearth board chair. “The event sparked a lively conversation about needs and what we could act on immediately to help alleviate the child care staffing shortage.”
Ideas include creating a community-wide pool of substitute care providers, offering scholarships for families in need but who don’t qualify for state subsidies and staff sign-on incentives and bonuses.
“The substitute pool concept is an exciting idea because we can tap into underused resources in The Valley,” said Smith. “This is a way for retired professionals and people who love working with children to become more engaged in our community. These multigenerational connections benefit all involved.” Open Hearth representatives indicated that compensation and qualifications support are available for child care substitutes and that the time commitment is only a couple days a month.
Open Hearth is a local nonprofit organization with a mission to create and sustain safe, multigenerational community spaces and programs in the Mad River Valley.