DUMMERSTON—Vermonters have been vigilant and ahead of the curve since the COVID-19 pandemic began almost two years ago. By most yardsticks, the state has done well in navigating the pandemic, with some of the lowest positivity rates in the country, and fewer virus-related deaths than in most other states.
“Vermont has done a better job than other states, but this feels like one of those times when we’ve been forgotten — again,” noted one local child care provider, speaking to The Commons with discretion because of the sensitivity of the issue.
As the epidemic of Omicron-positive tests gained speed, Governor Phil Scott made an announcement on Dec. 29 that heralded a new initiative, Operation Kits for Kids. The program made 87,000 antigen test kits available to public-school children enrolled in kindergarten through grade 12, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
But conspicuously absent from the program were tests for pre-kindergarten-age children, who are among those who cannot be vaccinated.
With the launch this week of a petition to get the state to offer access to testing for the youngest Vermonters, area early childhood educators are raising awareness of the strains that the pandemic is putting on their profession.
“The state says it considers us to be educators, and yet, when it comes time to support and assist us, we’ve been left out of the testing that is provided for the older children,” the provider said.
“It feels very hypocritical,” the provider continued. “We want younger children to be as valid as other age groups.”
The case for testing
Registration for Operation Kits for Kids opened quickly, and tests were distributed within a few days. The idea was to be sure children were tested before they returned to school following the Christmas holiday school break on Jan. 3.
“I encourage families to take advantage of these rapid tests,” Scott said on the state website. “Testing your child before school starts gives you peace of mind and will slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. It also will help protect the most vulnerable and keep schools open, so kids can get the education they need and deserve.”
On the same web post, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine encouraged families to take advantage of the program.
“The virus is highly contagious and will spread easily, especially in closed, indoor settings such as schools. This is especially true of the new Omicron variant,” said Levine.
While the governor was suggesting that school-aged children were “the most vulnerable” people, those running the private family child-care centers and preschools in Vermont were having big feelings about the governor’s statement.
When Brit Quell, who runs a registered home child-care center in Dummerston, where she serves seven children, all under 5 years of age, heard about the Kits for Kids initiative, she asked herself, “What about children between the ages of 0 to 5? These children cannot be vaccinated. They are actually the children who are most ‘vulnerable.’”
Quell, also a parent to a 3-year-old and an infant, saw the governor’s announcement on the Vermont Department of Health, Brattleboro division Facebook page on Dec. 31. The message informed local parents that if they hadn’t received their test kits, some were still available and gave the time and address to pick them up.
Quell posted a question there addressing her concern.
She asked, “Why were children 0 to 4 years old left out of this?”
The Health Department worker didn’t respond to her question but did respond to other Facebook posters affirming that this initiative would include only school-aged children attending public school and would not include younger children or those who are home-schooled.
Due to a lack of availability of a vaccination, these parents are still in a state of perpetual worry about their children testing positive for Covid. And as the hospitalization of children gains speed across the nation because of the Omicron variant, their fears are increasing.
“This has frankly been a frightening weekend for so many parents like us,” Tim Wessell, the parent of a toddler and a member of the Brattleboro Selectboard, told The Commons. “We are about to send our kids into day care situations that are not state supported with either take-home tests or PPEs for educators, and our kids are the ones who cannot be vaccinated yet.”
“We parents must work for a living, so our choice becomes either to stay home and not work to keep our children safe or resign ourselves to what feels like a near certainty that our kids will come home with Covid in the next few days,“ he said.
Billie Slade, owner and director of Wonder in the Woods, a child-care center in Dummerston, said the policy makes “absolutely no sense.”
“It seems like the children enrolled in public school are getting access to what they need and that’s wonderful, but we’ve forgotten about the younger children in our state,” she said.
“We want to keep this vulnerable population of children safe. That’s going to be a real challenge when we don’t have access to test kits as the families of school aged children are able to do,” she added.
“I have children coming back to my school and some of them don’t have any access to tests. Now what?” Slade asked with exasperation.
A petition emerges
Quell, who couldn’t stop thinking about how the Health Department had no answers, consulted with the Windham Early Educator’s Co-op.
Her next move? She created a petition.
She launched her petition on Change.org the evening of Jan. 1.
“It is the weekend before children head back to school from winter break and once again early childhood educators and admin are scrambling to support their teachers, families, and all children ages 0-4 who are returning to childcare this week,” she wrote. “COVID-19 test kits have been difficult to find either to purchase or in free test drops.
“The Vermont Department of Health did many K-12 specific, free testing drops over the past week. Who is missing from this population of children? The most vulnerable students, children ages 0-4 who are still left without a vaccine and many of whom are too young to mask.”
By 8 p.m. there were 78 signatures. The following evening there were 382. By Tuesday at noon, the count reached 748.
Quell’s petition is also being shared by many of the signatories via Facebook, email, and other social media platforms.
Wessel was one of the early signers.
“If you’re the parent of a child under the age of 5 in Vermont, you are left feeling that your state doesn’t care for this age group,” he said.
“I’m not saying that the school system supported teachers and that parents have it much better — it’s tough on them, too — but please understand how frightening this is for the small segment of parents whose kids are ineligible for vaccinations.
“And these are the very young Vermonters who can spread Covid to others, so not getting tests and [personal protective equipment] to all of our children’s caregivers and school staff makes no sense to me from a policy standpoint.”
State Rep. Michael Mrowicki, D-Putney, said that with the Legislative session starting Jan. 4, he would be pushing the administration “to start acting according to COVID-19 conditions.”
“It would be helpful to include all age groups and, before increasing testing, to be sure that the state had all the necessary testing supplies,” Mrowicki said.
Other consequences for a profession under strain
The long-reaching effects of a lack of testing could have dire consequences for some. One child-care provider told The Commons about one of those potential situations.
Many of this owner’s families were traveling over the Christmas holiday breaks and have returned to Vermont without an ability to test their youngsters before returning to her center.
Without testing, it is possible for an unvaccinated young child to spread the virus to other children, as many kids are under the age of 2 and aren’t yet required to mask.
That child could spread the illness, sending the virus into other households that might include grandparents, other vulnerable relatives, or newborns.
“Without tests being made available to us, I worry very much for the health consequences of these potential health threats to my families and more spreading of the virus,” the child-care provider said.
And, compounding the testing issue, an increasing number of providers have left the business since the pandemic began.
Early childhood educators in Vermont have been beset by low wages, long hours, an inability to hire substitute workers for sick days and holidays, and, for some, a lack of respect for their work. Many workers have found jobs in other sectors that offer higher wages and shorter working hours.
“There is a lot of talk by providers that we are the stepsisters at the ball because ‘it’s just child care,’” the provider said. “We’ve been at the foundation from the beginning, helping families so that parents could go to work all through this pandemic.”
As the numbers of people signing the petition continues to rise, Quell is feeling cautiously optimistic.
“Part of my frustration was that the Vermont Department of Health didn’t answer my questions or suggest how this problem can be solved,” she said.
“I want tests to be available within the week of our return to providing care after the holidays. Even if it was approved later than the public-school testing, it would still be better than having no availability at all,” Quell said.
“We’re doing email blitzes to government officials in the state, and I hope that the petition will get their attention and affect change quickly,” she added.
At press time, neither the governor’s office, nor anyone from the State Department of Health, has responded to The Commons’ request for comment.