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State gets interest from potential child care hubs

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MONTPELIER — One week before schools are set to start, state officials spoke about their efforts to set up "childcare hubs" for days designated for remote learning.

"This is an effort to expand on our existing capability, to build on our current successful programs as well as foster new ones to ensure that we can support our children and working families as best we can during this time," Mike Smith, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, said Tuesday during Gov. Phil Scott's twice-weekly news conference on the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic. "As we all know too well, these are challenging times that require creative thinking, flexibility and action."

As most schools offer a mix of remote and in-person instruction, the need for additional child care stood out. The child care hub initiative was announced by state officials about two weeks ago.

Smith said the idea is to work with community partners on making a new child care system built for "new circumstances" without harming existing programs.

"Wherever we can, we will continue to build upon the investments the state has made in Vermont's child care system throughout this COVID pandemic," he said. "The end goal is to have child care systems in Vermont for infants and toddlers as well as school age children that are stronger and more accessible."

Smith counted more than 160 submissions from groups looking to become a hub, provide space or offer enrichment activities. He called the community response "overwhelmingly positive."

Chloe Learey Chloe Learey, executive director of Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development, told the Reformer she's aware of one organization showing interest in seeking grant funds to launch multiple sites in Windham County. Her group offers referral services for families looking for child care in addition to its own programming.

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About 12 potential hub sites in eight counties including Windham County have been identified and could create 2,300 child care slots that can accommodate about 4,600 children, Smith said. Another 20 sites are being reviewed and about 40 more could be coming.

The goal is to create about 7,000 slots, a figure determined earlier by the state based on potential need given the change in school scheduling.

Hubs could become more depended on if schools need to shut down in the case of an outbreak, Smith said. They will be responsible for connecting students to their classes and must have access to wireless internet.

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"We're trying to get as many up and running by Sept. 8 ... and by the way, we're not going to stop there," Smith said. "This is a herculean task we've undertaken."

One of the biggest challenges involves finding staff for the hubs.

"We have staffing for after school programs and those we can draw on," Smith said. "What we have to guard against is making sure that we don't poach from the existing system in order to staff for what is a temporary system we are putting up."

About 40,000 Vermonters are currently unemployed, Scott said.

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"If you have an interest in early childhood care and learning, reach out to us because we could really use the help right now," he said.

State officials began looking at the reopening of schools about three months ago and hope to see more in-person instruction at schools later on, Scott said. Education Secretary Dan French anticipates more than 4,000 applications for homeschooling will be submitted for this school year, an approximately 100 percent increase over last year.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said the Department of Health is investigating an outbreak of COVID-19 cases linked to a private party at the Summit Lodge in Killington on Aug. 19. At the time of the conference, 14 cases involving party attendees and their close contacts had been identified.

Levine thanked managers of the Summit Lodge for their cooperation in their investigation and following the state's guidance to protect guests and employees. He said he believes Vermonters and out-of-state guests went to the party.

Scott also thanked managers of the Summit Lodge and stressed the importance of records kept by businesses for contact tracing.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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