Vermont should use the pandemic to reshape child care — and women’s work — for good.

After closing down to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Campus Children’s School at the University of Vermont announced it would shut its doors permanently. Saint Michael’s College Early Learning Center did the same. The closures of two high-quality academic child care centers in Chittenden County are canaries in the coal mine. The pandemic is pushing an industry already operating on razor-thin margins over the edge.

Affected families are now thrust into panic mode because working parents cannot hold jobs without child care. Who bears the brunt of this reality? Women. Without child care, someone has to quit their job or reduce their hours. The data shows it is usually women, largely as result of our country’s enduring gender wage gap. In Vermont, women earn 84 cents for every dollar men earn, and the wage gap is even greater for women of color. “Women were 4 times more likely than men to cite family and/or personal obligations as reasons for working part-time — and 7 times more likely to cite child care problems.” (CTS Women, Work and Wages Report, 2019)

In the case of the Campus Children’s School, some affected families are essential workers at the hospital, on the front lines of the pandemic, reminding us that every time a child care program closes, we risk losing frontline workers when we need them most.

Vermont policymakers made important investments to stabilize our child care industry when programs closed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Policymakers have approved crucial funding to help programs that are reopening. However, these investments don’t go far enough. Now is the time for Vermont to realign its resources to build a child care system to support our children and working families, to combat gender and racial inequity in the workplace and to aid Vermont’s economic and social recovery from this devastating pandemic.

We have witnessed what life is like for parents working — essentially or remotely — without child care or school. Ask any working parent, especially a mom with children under age 5, and they will likely tell you the last few months have been some of the hardest they have ever faced. And that’s putting it gently.

Those same working parents will tell you that child care providers and early educators are a critical part of the state’s economy, a long-overlooked reality we are seeing more clearly now than ever before. Because child care has long been viewed in the United States as “women’s work” — and nationally and historically, has often been provided by women of color — the workforce has been undervalued and notoriously underpaid for decades. The median annual salary for Vermont child care workers is $30,000, often without benefits. We pay the people who care for our children, almost all of whom are women, the least amount of money for some of the most important work.

We must consider the alarmingly disparate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Latinx communities, and remember that women of color are disproportionately employed in essential and low-wage jobs. Equitable access to high-quality early childhood education is one key component to addressing the deeply rooted racial disparities in our nation.

Vermont’s early care and learning system was flawed before COVID-19, with 50% of Vermont’s youngest children unable to access child care. The pandemic deepens shortages, worsens access problems, and puts additional budget pressure on programs already struggling to offer early educators living wages and benefits while adding safety concerns for teachers, children and families.

Investing in a stronger, more equitable and sustainable child care system provides an elegant solution to one of Vermont’s biggest economic issues: the graying of our workforce. We desperately need young people to fill the jobs that sit open and the new ones we want to create. A high-quality, affordable child care system will help entice a younger demographic to our state, allowing them to raise a family and earn a living.

Our coalition committed to equity and advancing women’s economic power in our state is calling for Vermont to commit to solving our child care crisis. We believe COVID-19 relief funds should be targeted to address child care as an economical workforce development issue because a strong Vermont requires a robust and affordable system of high-quality child care. We must pay early educators livable wages that reflect their expertise and value their work.

If you agree, visit letsgrowkids.org/build-stronger and begin by signing and forwarding the Build Stronger policy statement issued by Let’s Grow Kids. Demand a statewide paid family-leave policy that allows all parents time with their children as their family grows. Employers, add your voices to the conversation and take action: Work with Let’s Grow Kids to deepen your support of employee child care benefits, and urge your networks and associations to get on board.

We need a groundswell of Vermonters to rise up and support this change. Join us.

Meg Smith is the Vermont Women’s Fund director. Cary Brown is the Vermont Commission on Women’s executive director. Rhoni Basden is the Vermont Works for Women executive director. Jessica Nordhaus is director of Change The Story VT. Aly Richards is the executive officer of Let’s Grow Kids Chief. Katie Wells is an emergency medicine physician. And Anne Dougherty, is an obstetrics and gynecology physician.

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