South Hero daycare plans to expand to Grand Isle

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Thomas Chasse is organizing supplies in June 2021 at the closed Learning Adventure Child Care service in Grand Isle. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

When Grand Isle’s only licensed daycare closed last summer, it left a void in services felt on the islands of Lake Champlain.

Now a South Hero childcare provider is set to expand into the closed Grand Isle facility next month.

“It’s a good thing for the community,” said owner Carol Egan, who opened Turn to Joy at South Hero in 2020. “The extra space gives us options we don’t have right now.”

Turn to Joy will move its preschool program to the old Learning Adventure building on Route 314, Egan said, where it will accommodate about 25 children.

This will open up space for South Hero to accommodate other younger students, Egan said. She plans to have three classrooms at the original site: one room for six children; a bedroom for eight 1-year-olds; and a bedroom for a dozen 2-year-olds.

But, like other Vermont child care providers, Egan found it difficult to hire additional staff.

Egan completes renovations to the Grand Isle building, which is owned by the city. In total, she expects to spend around $25,000 of her own money on the project. In exchange, the city won’t charge Egan rent for the first two years, according to Grand Isle Selectboard member Jeff Parizo.

Egan said she expects the Grand Isle facility to be fully staffed when it opens on June 15, though she still needs to hire teaching assistants for the South Hero location.

Finding these employees was a challenge. Egan said she posted on online job boards and asked “everyone I know” — even families in her programs — if they knew anyone who wanted to cover shifts at South Hero.

Child care workers are leaving the profession at high rates, VTDigger reported, in part because of low wages and a lack of basic benefits such as health insurance. The pandemic has exacerbated these problems.

Egan said the only benefit she is able to offer her staff is free childcare. “You have to offer a competitive salary or benefits,” she said. “You really can’t do both.”

Egan said she knows several families who travel significant distances to access child care on the Champlain Islands because they couldn’t find slots in more populated areas, such as Burlington and St. Albans.

Yet islanders need more early childhood education services, says a February report of child care advocacy group Let’s Grow Kids of Burlington. Less than 60% of preschoolers in Grand Isle County have access to “high quality regulated child care programs,” the report said.

Statewide, more than 50 percent of preschoolers do not have access to these programs, according to the report.

He found that, overall, Vermont has improved access to child care for infants and toddlers over the past five years, but it “still doesn’t have a sufficient supply of regulated early childhood education programs to meet demand”.

Part of the problem in Grand Isle County — and other rural parts of Vermont — is that child care has historically been provided in single-family homes, advocates said. And when suppliers retire, they are often not replaced.

“The concept of workforce development comes up in many other kinds of fields,” Janet McLaughlin, executive director of the Vermont Association for Early Childhood Education, told VTDigger. “But people don’t talk about it the same way, often, for early childhood education.”

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