Jen Ricker: Gov. Scott, re-think the plan to reopen early education programs

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I am writing as an early childhood educator and as a voice for our young children who do not have a voice of their own in this situation. I, as well as many others in my profession, are dismayed and shocked by the governor of Vermont's decision to reopen child care centers in the state as of June 1. I feel that is putting the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society at risk, using them as "guinea pigs" in this pandemic situation our world is facing.

Many child care centers care for children under five years of age. Based on brain development research and real-world experience, I know that children at this age are not capable of social distancing. Their brains have not developed enough to even understand this concept, much less carry it out. They need, are learning about, and crave physical contact, social interaction and support, and emotional interaction and support. These things are very important to the development of all human beings.

I do not understand why one would close elementary and high schools for the rest of the year but intend to open child care centers in June. Children in elementary and high school have more developed brains. They can understand what it means to social distance. They have the ability to wash their hands properly and sufficiently on their own. They know to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze. If you have spent any time with a child under five, you know this is not the case for them. These younger children are at the very beginning of learning about personal hygiene, personal space, understanding relationships and emotions.

Child care centers cannot re-open and do it safely, even with the guidance provided by the state. If you look at any quality child care program, adults are in close, direct contact with the children. The educators are teaching with every move they make — both planned and unplanned. It is not reasonable to expect that young children, whether above or below the age of 2 years, can or should be expected to keep a face covering on their face while they are in child care. It is not reasonable to expect that these same children are not going to be playing with cloth coverings that their teachers are wearing. All people communicate so much through facial expression and body language, especially the youngest of our population who are just learning about the world.

I have attained a bachelor's degree in early childhood education and work at a child care program, dare I say a school for children aged birth through five years of age in Brattleboro. We are educating these children every day. Prior to this pandemic, we adhered to licensing rules and regulations, some of which cover such topics as health and safety. We followed protocols for physical health — including such things as sanitizing and disinfecting. Our program is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Our program follows the Vermont Early Learning Standards. We look at the whole child in our education and care for the children at our center. We consider all aspects of their development, including emotional development, social development, cognitive development, language development, and being healthy, just to name a few. Since this pandemic and the closure of schools, we have provided an abundance of activities and support to our children and families using remote learning. We have created Facebook pages to stay connected with our children and families, provided Zoom gatherings for the children so they can stay connected during this time as well as support for families and staff. We have put a variety of things in place to continue to educate and support our families safely.

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The concerns I've stated thus far do not even begin to address the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the inadequacy of PPE when working with very young children, or the emerging concerns with the effects COVID-19 has on the very youngest of our citizens. Young children are not responding to COVID-19 in the same way adults are. Children are developing Pediatric Inflammatory Multisystem Syndrome. Never mind the horror of this happening at all, but think about the trauma it would cause if such symptoms presented in a child care setting with all children there to witness it.

Our child care center had an open Essential Care Classroom during this pandemic. The Essential Care Classroom was opened on March 30, following all necessary state guidelines, protocols and procedures for essential care classrooms. The classroom provided care for six children from three families and was staffed by four educators. Due to two positive cases of COVID-19, we had to close the classroom on May 7.

I am asking the governor to continue stabilization money to child care programs until public school opens. Early education programs are schools, too! Cutting off stabilization money June 1 means it is not a choice, and that programs and families are being put in a very hard position being made to pay for child care they aren't using, not paying and losing their spot, or sending kids back even if they don't feel safe. I ask that the governor of Vermont reexamine the decision to open child care programs in Vermont as of June 1. I ask all governors of this country to reconsider and take into account what is in the best interest of our youngest citizens who can't speak for themselves in this matter.

Thank you for allowing me to share with you.

Jen Ricker is an Early Head Start teacher in Brattleboro. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bennington Banner.


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