Childcare hubs to serve local families

MIDDLEBURY — Addison County public school districts are organizing a series of childcare hubs that will offer safe, supervised space for young students on days they won’t physically be attending classes during a very unusual fall semester.

The hubs are being set up as schools change the way they are delivering education in response to the dangers posed by COVID-19. When school opens next week, most county schools will have half of the students in the building for two days a week and the rest being taught through remote connections. 

A new, $12 million grant program — funded through federal coronavirus relief money — is helping school districts create supplemental child care services for parents/guardians unable to be with their kids during the three remote learning days per week that are part of the new “hybrid” education system this fall.

Anne Gleason, school-age coordinator for Middlebury-based Mary Johnson Children’s Center, stressed the grant money is only intended to get the new hubs staffed (through signing bonuses), equipped and in operation for around a month. Subsidies are uncertain after that, though organizers believe districts could sustain the expanded childcare offering through the fees charged for the service.

Approximately $4.1 million of the total $12 million grant allocation will be set aside for childcare assistance for qualifying families, according to Gleason. She said Addison County is well-positioned to land several of these new hubs.

Grant awards will largely be aimed at districts that aren’t yet fully opening their elementary schools, a region that includes Chittenden, Franklin and Addison counties. Vermont Afterschool, along with key partners at the Vermont Department for Children & Families and the nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids, will coordinate the new program.

“Only places that are doing the hybrid startup model would be in line to have a need for this,” Gleason said. “This cuts down the number of places this (money) has to go.”

Tara Brooks, after-school director for Addison Northwest School District, said expanded childcare will be offered for Vergennes-area students.

Holly Morehouse, executive director of Vermont Afterschool, said she’s seen childcare hub grant applications from each county in the state, and it appears as though there will be enough money to go around. It will be up to the state to determine the size of the individual grant awards.

At this point, the state hasn’t put a cap on the number of children who may be served at the childcare hubs, according to Gleason.

Mary Johnson is preparing expanded childcare hubs at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary and at Weybridge Elementary, according to Gleason. Organizers are also exploring the possible creation of additional hubs at Middlebury-area business that have appropriate space to share.

Addison Central School District families were informed of the budding program several weeks ago through the schools’ messaging system, Gleason said. As of late last week, around 50 children were enrolled in the Middlebury area’s expanded childcare hubs. Plans call for the children to be split into “pods” of up to 15. The pods won’t mix in the buildings or on the playgrounds. They will keep separate from kids taking classes in the schools, too.

All the childcare hubs will be bound to all social distancing and hygiene rules prescribed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Vermont Department of Health. That means mask wearing, staying at least three feet apart, frequent sanitizing of surfaces, hand washing, and other safety measures.

Participants will use “spaces that aren’t currently being used in the schools,” Gleason noted.

IN THE BRISTOL AREA

Mandy Chesley-Park is the leader of Mount Abraham Unified School District’s Expanded Learning Program, which has distinguished itself as a model in reshaping and maintaining its childcare services throughout the pandemic. MAUSD officials have been planning for expanded childcare services since July, according to Chesley-Park.

“We had a plan in place before this hub program was mentioned,” she said. “We’ve been planning it with as many (funding) pieces as we could find — state funding, federal funding, the 21st Century grant that we have.”

So client families in the MAUSD can choose from among three childcare options at all five district elementary schools, in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro:

•  A “school-day” model, 7:45 a.m. to 3 p.m., for $20 a day per child.

•  A “working day” schedule, 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., for $36.

•  An after-school model, for $16.

Plans are also in the works to offer Wednesday programming in the district, according to Chesley-Park. She and her colleagues are exploring several potential off-campus sites in the 5-town area.

Around 90 students throughout the district have thus far signed up for the expanded MAUSD childcare hubs program. Financial aid is available through the state. If the family doesn’t qualify for a state subsidy, the district has a scholarship fund.

“No family is turned away because of financial barrier,” Chesley-Park said.

Organizers have high hopes about the future of expanded childcare services in the county.

“There’s a hope in the program that what we set up will be able to continue and strengthen the childcare system in the communities beyond that first month, and hopefully beyond COVID,” Morehouse said.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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