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Child care sought for surge

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/6/2020 8:46:51 PM
Modified: 4/6/2020 8:46:45 PM

WEST LEBANON — State officials and child care providers in both Vermont and New Hampshire are scrambling to determine which children of essential workers need care during the COVID-19 response and to sort out how best to provide it.

In the Upper Valley, a few hundred Dartmouth-Hitchcock employees have indicated through surveys that they would need help with child care if there is a surge of COVID-19 patients, said Sara Kobylenski, who is co-chairwoman of the child care committee of Upper Valley Strong.

“One of the things that this has exposed is that child care itself is an essential function in order to keep the rest of the workforce and the economy going,” said Kobylenski, who is a former director of the Upper Valley Haven and is a representative of the Couch Family Foundation.

However, child care is not delivered by a single coordinated system. To help families of essential workers find out what child care is available and determine what might work best for them during this time, Upper Valley Strong on Wednesday will launch a hotline staffed by employees of the Lebanon-based FitKids Childcare.

At least eight child care centers in the Upper Valley are open and providing care for children of health care workers, first responders, grocery store employees and others deemed critical to the COVID-19 response. School districts in Vermont also are providing care for some children.

More than 200 licensed child care facilities in New Hampshire are serving as emergency child care programs and caring for 5,500 children of essential workers, said Christine Tappan, the state’s associate commissioner for human services and behavioral health. The programs cover every region of the state, she said.

The health department has given emergency providers information about how to provide care in a safe way during this time, Tappan said.

But many centers have closed and some families aren’t comfortable sending their children into a group setting during the pandemic, so the hotline will also help connect families with babysitters to come into people’s homes, Kobylenski said.

Elizabeth Asch, who owns FitKids Childcare in Lebanon, said she had hoped to reopen FitKids after closing on March 20, but decided not to because she didn’t see how she could provide care to children safely.

“How could it be safe for me to have eight to 10 children in a room, plus two teachers?” she said. “Meanwhile, in my neighborhood people aren’t leaving their properties.”

FitKids is licensed for 188 children spread across 12 classrooms, Asch said. Nearly 80 of the children enrolled as of last month have at least one parent who is employed at D-H, she said. But she said those parents began keeping their children home even before FitKids closed.

Asch said she was brought to tears after telling a D-H human resources leader that she wouldn’t be able to reopen until after the crisis, and she wants to help fill the void. To help address the need safely, Asch is working with the Upper Valley Strong group to operate the hotline to connect families with certified care providers in their own neighborhoods.

“That’s the safest way,” she said.

Employers are also working to help workers cover the childcare gap.

“Because childcare is so personal and we offer a variety of work schedules, there is no single, one-size-fits all solution,” said Sarah Currier, D-H’s vice president of workforce strategy, in an email.

In addition to care needed for babies and toddlers, Currier said “with schools closed, there is also a new need for school-age support.” Some hospital employees also need help caring for adults with special needs, she said.

D-H has some room in its own on-site centers, Currier said. In addition, it is working with Upper Valley Strong, private childcare centers, parks and recreation departments, Dartmouth College, the Geisel School of Medicine and local school districts, and the two states to connect caregivers to families, she said.

“The most important thing for our employees to know is there are options,” she said.

Vermont officials said last week that there are enough slots for children of essential workers who need care, but there are some geographic gaps in that availability.

To provide care for the 1,180 children who need it, there are 2,000 slots, Department for Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz said in a Zoom meeting of the House Committee on Human Services last Tuesday.

But the state is still working to match some children in need of care with providers in Addison, Essex and Franklin counties, he said. They are also short caregivers for children under the age of 2 in the Burlington area.

Jackie Cowell, executive director of Early Learning N.H., a Concord-based advocacy group, said the centers that remain open are struggling to find enough bleach, hand soap, hand sanitizer and gloves to keep their facilities sufficiently clean.

And, Cowell said, furloughed child care workers who typically make $11 per hour or $440 per week are able to collect $850 per week in unemployment now. While she doesn’t argue that it’s a good idea to be putting money in people’s pockets, she said this creates a challenge in bringing workers back to care for essential workers’ children.

New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services committed at least $4 million in federal funding for an Emergency Child Care Collaborative, which allows participating providers to apply for incentive payments, including funding to support pay differentials for staff, child care costs for child care workers and other operating costs such as cleaning supplies, Tappan said. The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation also is stepping in to support nonprofit centers with grants, she said.

Beyond the immediate needs, Cowell said she is worried about what the future holds: Will child care centers that have long operated on thin margins be able to reopen after the pandemic? Will families be able to hold on to their slots?

“It’s just a new world,” she said.

Upper Valley Strong’s new temporary child care hotline can be reached via email at operationuvchildcare@gmail.com. A phone number has yet to be determined. Child care providers can sign up to help by emailing amy.brooks@myfairpoint.net.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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