On June 1, child care centers in Vermont will be able to open to all families for the first time since March after only being allowed to care for children of essential workers.
As those changes quickly went in place two months ago, VPR's Henry Epp spoke to Sonja Raymond, the owner of Apple Tree Learning Centers in Stowe and the executive director of the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children.
At that point, Apple Tree was grappling with the shutdown and preparing to scale back to just caring for children of essential workers. Now that child care centers are opening back up, we’re checking back in.
VPR's Henry Epp's follow up interview with Sonja Raymond is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: Well, first, how have things gone these last two months? Were you able to adapt?
Sonja Raymond: We were. Absolutely. And, you know, it was a bit of a transition over a two- to three- week period. It took us a while to get in the groove with all the policies and procedures we had to put in place, with getting staff up to speed and parents up to speed. But once we got in the groove, it was pretty smooth for the last seven, eight weeks.
I understand now most of your families are returning after June 1st. What will be different at Appletree, for children and for your staff?
Well, quite a bit will be different in terms of, certainly how we manage the health and safety aspects of what we're doing on a day to day basis. It will be first, how they drop off and pickup each day. Used to be, as I'm sure with every other program, that parents dropped off, you know, in the classrooms of their children. So to avoid that, we are actually using all of our outside exits.
They're also going to notice that all of the staff are wearing facial coverings, that we will be doing a wellness check. They will have their temperature taken, a series of questions about their health asked, to determine that they are healthy to be here each day.
Also, our cleaning routine is very different. And the parents are well aware of that. We have a system of rotation of toys and disinfection of toys. We have to clean all these surfaces touched frequently. And also, we don't mix our groups at all anymore. And they can't share the playground or outdoor space or indoor space.
And for children, obviously, it's difficult to keep young children apart and have them be socially distanced. I mean, is that possible or is that something you're even attempting to do at this point?
So with our older children, you know, preschool and particularly our summer camp children, we definitely are. We are not thinking, "Oh, there'll be a 6 feet apart all day long." Of course, that probably won't be happening. But we are taking the opportunity to, you know, not do the types of activities that have them rolling and jumping all over and around each other.
They also are capable of wearing masks. The smaller children under 2 don't need to wear them anyway. So that's a non-issue. It's probably our preschool group. That's the most challenging, to be honest with you. A lot of them have a hard time keeping their hands off of it. A lot of times we've just had to say, "Never mind and put it in their cubby because honestly, they're spreading more germs with it, [than] without it."
In terms of the financial side, obviously not having the normal payments from families the last couple months has an impact. How have the last two months affected your bottom line?
Well, I feel like pretty fortunate that we've come out fairly unscathed. It was very difficult to get the payments flowing.
These are ... from the state, money from the state?
Yeah. Being a new system, it took a while for everything to kick in and be done. We are fortunate that we took advantage of that program. So the only income that we weren't getting was from our afterschool program.
What we had to do, unfortunately, was lay those staff off, all but our director. But we're fortunate, they are coming back to work in our summer program, most people. We will have a loss of about $20,000 when it's said and done. But I think considering how bad it could be, we did OK.
Not all childcare centers have stayed open through all of this as as you have. So what would you tell operators of centers that have been closed for the last two months and are just now getting ready to open in this whole new way of operating during the pandemic?
I think I would say, recommend that they talk to some of the folks that have been open just in terms of how they're doing things and how it's worked. I think it's a really scary concept to open if you haven't been open at this point. I think it feels very different for folks that have been closed for the last, you know, 12 weeks, to take on everything that we've been doing gradually over time.
I think we really can be a good resource to each other at this time.