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A Father Reflects on the Reopening of Childcare Centers

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Penelope at her childcare center before the closure - COURTESY OF KEEGAN ALBAUGH
  • courtesy of Keegan Albaugh
  • Penelope at her childcare center before the closure

Two and a half months into the COVID-19 pandemic, my family of four has adapted fairly well to living, working and playing pretty much exclusively at home. My nearly 4-year-old daughter, Coraline, has become quite the Zoom aficionado. My 19-month-old daughter, Penelope, is consistently one step ahead of the rest of us, handing out water bottles and jackets to everyone as soon as the word "outside" is mentioned. My partner, Stephanie, has grown used to recording improv shows for the Vermont Comedy Club from our basement. I've established a network of close father friends who have been connecting daily to talk about everything from nacho preferences to relationships with our partners and parents.

It feels weird to say it, but there are aspects of the stay-at-home order that I've really come to enjoy. I recognize the tremendous level of privilege I have to be able to make such a statement, as millions of people are really struggling. But it's true: I have found a level of comfort and peace with myself and family during these times.

This month, that changes.

On June 1, childcare centers in Vermont were allowed to reopen after being closed for two and a half months to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus — as long as they abide by a long list of state-mandated guidelines. Although not all centers are opening in June, the order signals that returning to our family's pre-pandemic arrangement — both parents working outside the home and both kids in childcare — is on the horizon.

And I'm experiencing a lot of conflicting feelings, including fear, anxiety, hope, optimism, sadness, guilt and relief.

Like many people during this pandemic, I've had difficulty at times finding the balance between facts and fear. On one hand, our Department of Health recently announced that Vermont has one of the lowest growth rates of COVID-19 in the country, and the state has given the green light to continue reopening businesses and communities. On the other hand, I've heard stories about childcare centers that have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks, as well as the troubling news from our neighboring state of New York that a small number of children have become severely ill and even died from a COVID-19-related inflammatory syndrome.

When you're responsible for the life of another human being, the line between facts and fear can be a difficult one to walk — especially when there is uncertainty around the facts themselves.

My daughter Coraline misses her school so much. She gets extremely excited for her classroom Zoom meetings, where she has the opportunity to share, sing and connect with her teachers and friends. I really cannot wait for the day she can hug and play with these people once again. But, like many other parents, I want to ensure that the reopenings are happening in safe, well-planned ways. And the 13-page set of guidelines for childcare programs reopening provided by the Department of Health, the Agency of Education, and the Department for Children and Families have left me with a lot of concerns.

Childcare workers, the unsung heroes of our world, are being asked to do a lot under these new guidelines. I appreciate the efforts and intentions of making the reopening of schools as safe as possible, but I question how all centers will be able to follow these new guidelines, when most centers' resources are already fairly limited.

I'm concerned that the quality of educational programming, particularly as it relates to social-emotional learning, will greatly suffer in many centers trying to adhere to all of the new guidelines, and I worry about the impact that may have on children.

I'm concerned that a lot of centers, many of which are already strapped for cash, may not be able to stay afloat financially as the state's childcare stabilization program comes to an end, and that families choosing to unenroll may result in lost income for centers.

I'm concerned about the ability of centers to keep up with the demand for personal protective equipment, as well as their ability, both logistically and financially, to acquire more as the weeks progress.

I'm concerned about the equity of the whole situation. If staffing limitations prevent centers from opening at full capacity, how is it decided who can attend and who cannot? Depending on their incomes and occupations, some parents will be forced to send their children back to childcare, even if they aren't ready to make such a decision. Families who can afford to keep their children at home are not forced to make that choice.

I'm concerned about the strains we're placing on our state's early childhood educators. These individuals already work tirelessly to take care of our children, and now we're placing even more responsibilities on their shoulders. In fact, hundreds of early childhood educators from across the state have already signed a letter to Gov. Phil Scott through the website Action Network, addressing their concerns and discomfort with the current plan.

One of the main themes I've noticed from the past two months is uncertainty. I've been able to manage it pretty well so far. But when that uncertainty involves the safety and well-being of not only my own children, but all young people across the state, I'm left with a lot of concerns, questions and fear.

Stephanie and I are unsure about our own next steps. We recognize that our children will inevitably need to return to school, and we have seen friends struggle with the decision and ultimately decide they have no other choice. We plan on maintaining the status quo for the foreseeable future. I just hope that, when the time comes, most of our concerns will have been addressed, so that we can drop our loved ones off with more love than worry in our hearts.

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