Closure of college-run child care blindsides Chittenden County parents

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) About 100 families in Chittenden County have lost their child care after two colleges announced this month they couldn't afford to keep their programs open in the wake of COVID-19. Officials at the University of Vermont's Campus Children's School and St. Michael's College's Early Learning Center said the numbers became unsustainable, but the decision has left some parents feeling blindsided.

"Shock," said Robin Merritt of Winooski.

"It's heartbreaking," said Kathleen Parent of South Burlington.

The two mothers -- both University of Vermont employees -- are still coming to terms with the news that their child care suddenly ended. Families were told at the end of last month that the Campus Children's School was closing. Merritt calls the decision one-dimensional. "They've taken away really more than what they see as just an academic unit, they've taken away a community," she said.

Her three children have gone to CCS. Three-year-old Wren is now going to enroll a year early in kindergarten. Her older brother, Murphy, says he's disappointed she won't have all the adventures he did when he went there. "I was hoping that my sister could get more experience," he said.

"It was the place where we trusted to have our kids cared for and loved," Merritt said.

Kathleen Parent says it was emotional when her daughter Lilian's teachers stopped by their home to say goodbye. She is taking a leave of absence from work and a pay cut to do child care until Lilian starts kindergarten in the fall. "To have to try to explain that to a five-year-old -- that you can't go back to your school and your friends and your teachers... that was a hard conversation to have," she said.

UVM is not the only college in our area to have to make difficult decisions about child care. The Early Learning Center at St. Michael's College served 40 to 45 families and closed when COVID hit. Then, they had to make the decision not to reopen it after the pandemic due to financial reasons. But we did find out that they are working with families to come up with a potential solution.

"I feel really grateful that they are partnering with us and wanting this to work," said Laura Lee. The Winooski mother is part of a 17-member group looking to restart child care at St. Mike's as a nonprofit. They told us the college is going to lease them space at a reasonable rate. They're hoping to be open again by the end of the summer.

"The need for high-quality child care is tremendous. It's a huge need and we're hoping we can continue to serve some of that need," Lee said.

Discussions like that with UVM are what Merritt and Parent want to see. "I'm really hoping the school would reconsider. We know it wouldn't look the same as it did prior," Merritt said.

"I think some of the reasons that they're landing on don't feel sound. And when there's no dialogue, it's hard to see both perspectives on the situation," Parent said.

Despite the financial challenges of running a program, the demand for child care in the area is clear. The university says their waitlist for the program had 600 children on it. Chittenden County has historically had only one to four percent vacancy in child care spaces and very high demand. There's no evidence that has changed. Which makes finding replacement care an uphill battle for families.

UVM officials did not make anyone available for an interview, but they did say that even before the pandemic the program required a half-a-million a year in subsidies.