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Child care found for those on the front line

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BRATTLEBORO — Local child care programs are open for families with parents considered crucial to handling the coronavirus pandemic.

"We haven't had to say to any family, 'There's no spot for you,'" said Kristy Rose, child care referral and food program specialist at Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development.

In more normal times, Rose finds spots for children who are infants through school-age children. For now, she's just looking at placements for the offspring of essential personnel who need immediate options. Essential personnel include hospital workers, grocery store staff, emergency personnel and others deemed necessary to respond to the pandemic.

The state and Let's Grow Kids, a statewide movement advocating for high-quality child care programs, collect information from families in need of child care. Agencies in different counties running child care referral programs receive the information.

Rose said once she gets a list of families, she will contact them to discuss their needs. Then she'll send them to local child care programs that are currently open or willing to open.

As of Tuesday, Rose was aware of nine programs open in Windham County — eight are in Brattleboro and one is in Brookline — serving 68 children from 42 families. She said five other programs are willing to open if need be.

Chloe Learey, executive director of Winston Prouty Center, said her organization would reopen its doors for child care if necessary.

"It seems right now, with the capacity, there's a good match," she said.

Ann Linge, program coach for the Early Learning Center at Winston Prouty, said all of society is experiencing a big impact but there's an extra layer for families with young children. She hopes people understand how important people who work in hospitals and grocery stores are, as well as child care providers.

"We're integral to families' lives in a lot of different ways, not just because we watch their kids," she said. "Our program is really based in relationship building and recognizing that a foundation for a healthy development is secure attachments. That is very hard to do remotely."

STAYING CONNECTED

Linge said staff members miss the families and children, and they're trying to connect through online videos or teleconferencing as much as possible.

Winston Prouty has its own YouTube channel where teachers read stories and sing songs. The center also sends out activities and links for families to participate in chats via video conferencing software.

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The goal is to offer as much support and routine as possible.

"The more connections we can continue to provide, the better," Linge said.

Alison Wheeler, Children's Integrated Services coordinator at Winston Prouty and parent of four, said she feels it's important to maintain relationships for her 3-year-old son between trusted adults and his classmates. She noted Winston Prouty and schools have communicated that her job as a parent right now is to provide "security and love whenever and wherever I can in their day," and find learning opportunities throughout the day.

"It is a lot of juggling and moving around and shifting around," she said.

It's Wheeler's hope that family walks and other activities will continue once things start returning to a more normal state affairs. She said more time together has allowed for her to spend time working on embedding values within her family.

Linge said it is unclear how the effects of the pandemic will affect child development but her group will support families as much as possible to help ensure they're providing "the love and the real care giving that kids need."

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"It is really challenging," she said.

Learey worries about the financial impact to early childhood programs already running on thin margins.

"No one's getting rich in child care," she said. "Certainly, the state is doing a lot to help providers stay open, which is great."

There's more early educators and teachers not working than are at this point, Learey said. She estimated there are hundreds of children enrolled in early childhood programs in the community.

Her group is conducting a survey to find educators who are out of work but would be willing to fill in if someone gets sick. It's also paying employees to attend meetings and develop curriculum.

Learey said even if the new normal requires more remote work, those in her field will have to adapt.

"We need to help young children develop," she said. "I can't imagine our world changing so much that we wouldn't continue having early care and education in some format that it is now."

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That, she added, may include better systems to ensure physical safety in situations where there is known illness.

SAFETY GUIDELINES

Linge said she thinks it is positive that the state is thinking about how child care programs provide "safe and healthy care in this challenging environment."

The Vermont Agency of Education says groups in child care programs at this time should not exceed more than 10 individuals. Facilities with an occupancy for greater than 50 children can operate but classrooms must be separate and the groups cannot congregate.

Handwashing must last at least 20 seconds and occur especially at arrival, after going to the bathroom, before eating, after blowing one's nose and when they are visibly dirty. Educators are expected to help young children do the same. They are advised to closely supervise use of alcohol-based and sanitizer.

Staff are urged to monitor themselves for symptoms and stay home when sick. They are to frequently and thoroughly clean their sites.

Parents and guardians are to be instructed and required to keep children home when they have a fever, cough or shortness of breath. A child care provider can send a child home if they see such symptoms.

No outside visitors or volunteers except for employees or contracted service providers should be allowed on site.

Signs should remind staff and children about hygiene. Hugs and handshakes should be avoided.

Linge said the hand washing and cleaning requirements are aligned with her group's current practices, "just maybe with a little more frequency." She wondered if a temperature-taking procedure upon entering a building might be more helpful.

Her biggest concern has to do with the requirement saying, "Social distancing practices should be in place for all."

"My understanding is that this would require physical separation of at least six feet from others," she said in an email. "With young children, six inches is often hard to maintain! It seems like more clarification around what 'social distancing' really means when interacting with a group of young children would be helpful."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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