At first glance, it seemed impossible. On Aug. 18, Gov. Phil Scott issued an executive order to increase Vermont’s child care capacity as public schools announced reopening plans to provide some or all education remotely. The state dedicated $12 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to support the directive, to give thousands of children and youth in Grades K-6 a safe place to be during remote school learning days, not to mention peace of mind for working families who needed the extra support.
School was about to go back in session — we didn’t have much time. In fact, my organization (Vermont Afterschool), along with the Department for Children and Families (DCF) and Let’s Grow Kids, had just a few weeks to meet the governor’s goals.
But this is the beauty of the Vermont community — how we come together to solve problems for each others’ families and well-being.
First, we identified existing afterschool, out-of-school time, and youth-serving partners in communities who already knew how to run programs for youth and who had the relationships with schools and families. This made the process of getting hubs up and running more easily and often less expensive. Innovative partnerships helped to fill in the gaps. Residents across our state pulled out all the stops — from fitness centers and churches providing spaces for programs to operate to a small business working with a local hub to create a cohort for the children of their employees.
Then, we worked with the hubs to figure how to expand hours and capacity. Afterschool providers collaborated with school administration to help ensure accessible, affordable options that aligned with school schedules.
To date, we have been able to set up 39 school-age child care hubs throughout 83 different locations across Vermont with the capacity to serve approximately 5,600 K-6 grade students on their remote learning days.
These spaces are bright spots in an otherwise dark year. They are full of joy, flexibility and creativity. While adhering to health guidelines, staff members are supporting learning and helping students stay on task, creating quiet spaces to complete school assignments and, of course, giving children opportunities to participate in hands-on learning, be physically active outdoors and try new hobbies.
There is so much positive child development that happens in the child care hubs. After months of isolation, students are connecting with their peers, playing outside and exploring new interests from birding to engineering to building forts in the woods to pottery.
And we’re not done yet. We will continue to track the child care needs of families and work with state partners to respond collaboratively. As schools transition to in-person instruction, we will work with the hubs to figure out how best to support families and adjust hours accordingly. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is constant, and we must always evolve.
Also, COVID-19 has illuminated how important afterschool and youth-serving programs are to Vermont families and communities. The newly formed afterschool task force, created in the 2020 legislative session and comprised of state partners and afterschool program representatives, will begin meeting this fall to examine issues around equity and access. They will also create recommendations on how to make out-of-school time programs accessible and affordable to all. This is a positive step in the right direction.
The adaptability and problem-solving approach we have taken thus far will continue to be an asset moving forward. I would argue that the hubs approach Vermont has taken can in many ways also strengthen the system overall, and I’m so proud to play a part in it with so many caring agencies, community organizations, school districts and, of course, the hubs themselves.
Together, we’ve built relationships in local communities, expanded sites and staff in thoughtful ways, created new jobs across the state; these are all parts of Vermont’s story about how we rose to the challenge and also made an investment in our state’s future.
I hope our collective efforts will help inform an even stronger system going forward. Vermont’s children and youth deserve it.
Holly Morehouse is executive director at Vermont Afterschool.