Vermont child care facilities, kids get used to new normal

GEORGIA, Vt. (WCAX) Vermont parents heading back to work can now also send their children back to child care. The facilities reopened Monday with some changes to meet new coronavirus safety requirements.

A few raindrops are exactly what five-year-old Madison Stommel ordered. "I can't wait until it rains," she said, "then we get to make mud pies!"

It's her first day back at child care after months. She and her two-year-old brother Lucas both attend Georgia's Next Generation. Their mother, Michelle Stommel, says they wanted to come back. "They were very, very excited to see their friends. They hadn't seen them in months," she said.

But they came back to a different environment. New temporary fences outside create separate play areas for groups of children, and teachers and staff are required to wear masks -- just some of the precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"I of course have some concerns, but as long as they're trying to follow them the best they can and try to maintain a natural environment for the kids, I feel like I was pretty comfortable with that," Stommel said.

We heard a similar story from Kelly Forbes. The Georgia woman's son Oliver will be two in August. She's glad to be able to send him to play and learn with his friends while she works full-time at a school. "Wasn't worried at all. I know that they're going to take all the precautions they need to to make sure all their staff and the kids stay safe," she said.

But those safety precautions cost money. Next Generation has two locations -- Georgia and St. Albans -- and both had to hire two extra staff to meet new guidelines that prevented staff from working with multiple groups of kids. Owner Sara LeBlanc is getting about $16,000 in restart grants from the state for each location, but she's spending more than that on salaries.

"It does not cover what you need, not to mention the supplies for masks, gloves, the thermometers -- all of the extra stuff. It adds up quick," LeBlanc said. She says they also had to reduce hours to help meet staffing pressures. Budget lines are tighter and some families didn't send their children back. "So, unfortunately we lose that tuition now that June 1 has started. So we are ramping up enrollment a bit, figuring out how do we fill those spaces."

On Monday state officials the reiterated that they're spending $6 million on grants to help places like Next Generation. Vt. Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said they're transitioning back to the way it was before the pandemic hit. "Are there bumps along the road? I'm sure there are. But the majority of things I've heard have been praise," he said.

Next Generation says it's been an adjustment and they're still trying to make the business work. But staff, like Kaeilah Lenahan, said that overall it's been a good first day back."We will see what tomorrow brings. Tomorrow, the second day, is always an interesting one," she said.

Another thing the state is helping centers out with is supplies. Smith says he believes while there are a few gaps, they've been successful at getting equipment out to centers to meet COVID-19 safety requirements. LeBlanc said the distribution center opened Monday night so that's where she is now -- getting masks for staff.