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Saturday, Dec 9, 2023

Childcare shortage in Vermont means long waitlists for college faculty

On top of balancing classes, meetings and the challenges that come with living in rural Vermont, college faculty with young children face an additional burden: finding and retaining childcare.

The college has worked to alleviate the problem through efforts, such as the continued subsidization of College Street Children’s Center (CSCC) and a project joining and expanding CSCC and Otter Creek Children’s Center (OCCC), as well as providing flexibility for professors. However, the childcare shortage in Addison County stems from deeper statewide issues with understaffing of these centers due to insufficient pay and funding.

According to the Addison County Chamber of Commerce website, there are eight centers classified as childcare, preschool or kindergarten in the county. This list does not seem to include some of the centers in the county that The Campus heard about while reporting this story. Aurora Preschool and the Bridge School were not on the list as of press time, as well as the College Street Children’s Center, which is located on college property and subsidized by the college.

Local childcare centers in Middlebury such as OCCC, which currently enrolls 44 children in infant through preschool care, serve not only Addison County but also neighboring counties. According to Executive Director Linda January, OCCC serves about 17 different towns total and a mix of families from Addison, Rutland and Chittenden counties.

“The makeup really reflects the larger social and economic makeup of Addison county,” January said. “We have some dual-income families, we’ve had families who are connected with [the Department for Children and Families] that might be in the foster system, we have children who are being raised by grandparents, families who are in school trying to improve their education, single [parent] families; we are really as diverse as you can get in Vermont.”

Evergreen Preschool, located in Vergennes, serves 34 children ages 3 and 4. While two-thirds of its kids come from the Vergennes area, the remaining third reside in Hinesburg, Starksboro, Bristol, Monkton, New Haven and Middlebury. According to Program Director Ashley Bessette, Evergreen’s waitlist is not so long since infant care — which is especially limited in Vergennes — is in greater demand. She added that many families send their children to Evergreen out of proximity, while others are attracted to its social-emotional development teaching model.

“For the families that are traveling a ways, I think they really believe in the education that we offer and our philosophy on childhood development, and what kids in preschool really need to thrive,” Bessette told The Campus.

January said she has observed a steady decrease in childcare capacity statewide over the past few years, with centers closing or changing capacity for various reasons, but there was never enough capacity.

“There’s been a couple of preschools in the public schools that have closed that eliminated some preschool spots,” January said. “Covid has exacerbated some of those reasons, but I think in general the trend has been a decrease from year to year, or steady.”

The waitlists for spots at local childcare centers are long for any level, but demand is higher for infant care, January said. This is because infant care inherently requires a higher intensity of care and staffing, though these spots do tend to open up at OCCC each year.

For parents, the limited capacity for infant care spots means having to join waitlists months, or even years, in advance of anticipating a need for childcare. Getting off these waitlists can be a matter of sheer luck, said Paul Hess, assistant professor of Physics and a new member of the CSCC Board of Directors.

“We tell everybody that we know who’s planning on having a kid, as soon as they get pregnant or even when they’re thinking about it; it’s good to get on the waitlist for childcare centers because those waitlists are long,” Hess told The Campus. “We’ve been lucky to get a spot, but, really, it was just luck in that another family decided to keep their kids home.”

Not every family is lucky enough to land a childcare center spot off a waitlist, and even finding a temporary or year-long solution does not guarantee long-term childcare security. After using a nanny share with another faculty member during the 2020–21 academic year, Jennifer Ortegren, professor of religion and member of the CSCC Board of Directors, had to move in with in-laws in Pennsylvania for the summer in order to secure childcare. After calling centers all summer, Ortegen was able to get a part-time spot at CSCC for the year but still had to find another part-time caregiver and schedule classes around the arrangement.

“Finding people is an incredibly time-consuming and stressful experience in part because there are not many options. We have been able to find wonderful caregivers, but it’s such a source of stress coordinating with potential other families and caregivers, etc.,” Ortegren wrote in an email to The Campus. “And because CSCC doesn’t offer preschool, we’ve already started all over trying to get on lists, etc. It just is an ongoing source of stress and anxiety.”

At the start of the pandemic, some childcare centers shut down for several months before eventually reopening with part-time hours and new protocols. According to Assistant Professor of Biology Eric Moody, this disruption was challenging but manageable due to the flexibility created by online learning.

“We had the choice of how to teach our classes, so that was nice in some ways. As a lab science professor, I still highly value having in-person labs, and I did, as soon as students came back to campus.” Moody told The Campus.

Evergreen Preschool found that the pandemic made it necessary to hire an additional part-time “floater” to accommodate greater need for flexibility surrounding days off.

“What we’ve found is that teachers need more time off, whether they’re sick, they were exposed, their kids were sick… in a normal year you need a day off here and there, but it was feeling like we all needed days a lot, ” Bessette said.

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While both professors and other community members alike have trouble finding consistent affordable childcare, both Moody and Hess noted the relative privilege many college professors have in being able to afford backup options, such as a private nanny, especially during uncertain pandemic times. Hess added that a professor’s salary makes such options possible.

Although spots at CSCC are not in any way limited to college staff and faculty, Moody said it can seem to lean that way.

“Sometimes it feels that college employees might have an easier time getting their kids into some of those places, which sort of creates separate issues. So trying to do it in a fair way is certainly hard,” he said.

Hess said making spots at CSCC exclusively for college employees would certainly benefit the college, but that is probably not possible for regulatory or funding reasons, and he prefers the more varied set of families the center currently serves.

“From our perspective it’s nice to have a mix of kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds,” he said.

According to both childcare providers and professors, the statewide shortage in childcare is a problem caused not only by increasing demand or the pandemic but also the constant struggle to keep childcare centers staffed as a result of insufficient pay, which was exacerbated by the pandemic.

“It’s hard for all those places to keep up their staffing, when people could go do something else or may decide to leave the workforce during the pandemic, if they’re not getting paid enough,” Moody said. “Across the whole board, it seems the demand exceeds the supply.”

Widespread undervaluation of childcare providers and the struggle for centers to attract and retain staff has the potential to limit both the careers of people in early childhood education and the options of parents unable to secure care. “Some people have to turn down jobs as a result,” January said.

Bessette explained that the nature of working in early childhood education means that workers without a partner making more money often cannot afford to keep a job in a childcare center.

“A lot of people have left because the pay sucks, and they can’t pay their bills. I think that’s really unfortunate because there are people who are really good in the field who went on to do less impactful work because they got paid more and got benefits,” she said.

In addition to pay, the childcare workplace environment is not sustainable, Bessette added. “We can’t ask these people to work 55-hour work weeks without breaks, without planning time because we’re constantly putting out fires, understaffed.”

According to Moody, the frequent changes in staffing can also directly affect the quality of childcare and create social challenges for some children.

“For young kids, that turnover is really hard; it was definitely hard on our son. After he came back, when they did reopen full-time again, there was a lot of turnover with the teachers, and he wasn’t familiar with them,” Moody said.

The college is helping fund a project to combine OCCC and CSCC, which will improve capacity, but the end date is still at least two-and-a-half years out, January said.

“Expanding and increasing capacity is not easy, and it really takes a village to bring it together and make it happen in a meaningful way,” she added.

Hess noted that expanding capacity won’t be possible without being able to find staff. “Planning certainly needs to happen, and this is probably a place where the college can help also,” he said. He suggested that getting students on work study or in the Education Department are possible solutions.

According to Ortegren, it is also important to consider benefits for childcare employees.

“For example, it is not currently feasible to offer health insurance than [sic] is better than the options on the federal exchange, but this means that if younger teachers age out of access to health insurance through their parents and don’t have access to healthcare through a partner, finding a job that offers a benefits plan may be more attractive,” Ortegren wrote.

At the college, while many departments work flexibly with professors, and the course schedule will even shift 8:00 a.m. classes in the spring to accommodate daycare drop offs, the communication and awareness could also alleviate the issue, according to Hess.

“Maybe for arriving new faculty members who have kids and are coming from somewhere where this isn’t as much of an issue, which is true in a lot of places around the U.S., especially cities, the college can do a better job communicating to new faculty what the restrictions are, how they have to get on waitlists, maybe having some forums or something,” Hess said.

Bessette also expressed appreciation for how the Let’s Grow Kids agenda is trying to get childcare employees on par with salary and benefits for public school teachers, who make more money even though she and her teachers are licensed educators.

She noted that there is a need, however, for a shift in the perception and treatment of early childhood educators, which could even look like changes such as longer postpartum leave for professors to avoid needing to create more infant spots.

“I think we need to be really thoughtful about what we’re asking of the early childhood educators, and I’m always saying we need to get the managers of companies, and businesses, and the college, on board to support families, to not have their kids in care for nine, nine-and-a-half hours a day. I think it’s really hard to find the humans that are willing to cover that many hours so that other people can work,” Bessette said.

Maya Heikkinen

Maya Heikkinen '24 (she/her) is a Copy Editor. 

She has previously served as an Editor at Large, News editor, copy editor and staff writer. Maya is majoring in Conservation Biology with a minor in Spanish, but is also passionate about writing. She is from Orcas Island, WA, and loves being immersed in forests, running/hiking, gardening, and hanging with plants and cats. In addition to The Campus, she has been involved in SNEG and the currently extinct WildMidd.