Essex home-based childcare provider Lorrie Ploof purchased bark mulch for her playground last weekend in order to comply with a new state regulation. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Essex home-based childcare provider Lorrie Ploof purchased bark mulch for her playground last weekend in order to comply with a new state regulation. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Lorrie Ploof has big plans for the playroom in her Essex home-based childcare program. The “Curious George” theme was fun for a while, she said, but the four kiddos in her care far prefer pirates now.

During naptime, Ploof walked through the bottom floor of her split-level. Across from a miniature ball pit was a wooden climbing structure, transformed into a massive ship with a little imagination. She planned to pick out paint samples that weekend.

“You’re always doing this job. It never stops,” she said with a sigh. “I love it, but I think now that there’s more pressure on everything, it burns you out.”

A caregiver for 15 years, Ploof holds multiple accreditations, but she’s become financially and mentally overwhelmed by new regulations from the state’s Child Development Division for home-based providers like herself – and she knows she’s not alone.

“It’s frustrating, it’s stressful [and] I’m seeing it’s never stopping,” Ploof said. “It’s a hard job, and you don’t make what you work for.”

Published in a thick packet, the regulations set new requirements for health and safety, provider qualifications and curriculum, among others. The updated rules officially went into effect last month, though the state says providers have until September 2017 to comply.

It’s the first time statewide regulations were updated for center and home-based programs since 2001 and 1996, respectively. For the latter, the nearly 100-page document is a far cry from its 20-year-old predecessor.

The old document devoted little more than a line to program cleanliness, according to CDD Deputy Commissioner Reeva Murphy. Now, terms for bleaching toys, sweeping and mopping, sanitizing doorknobs and more are explicitly defined.

“We did work very hard to use clear numbering [and] plain language,” Murphy said. “Clarity takes more words.”

But many updates aren’t just lengthier – they require providers to pony up some cash. It’s an extra resource Ploof said she just doesn’t have.

Now, cushioning material like woodchips, mulch or rubber is required around all play equipment – think: swings, slides and climbing equipment – that are more than 30 inches tall.

Ploof spent $200 on mulch just last weekend after negotiating a deal with a local tree service. She chose the cheapest material available and is slowly picking out the extra debris mixed in.

The state has secured some funding, like for professional development and water testing, but more general funds are hard to come by.

“We just don’t have the money right now for small flexible grants for something like cushioning,” Murphy said.

Plus, Murphy doesn’t consider this cost necessary. In fact, the cushioning material rule was entirely left off the state’s cost analysis because climbing structures are optional.

But Ploof said eliminating her swing set would punish the kids. They spend hours climbing and sliding outdoors.

To make up the difference, Ploof feels forced to raise her weekly rates – a change she knows her families will have trouble stomaching.

“The price I charge right now works for them,” Ploof said. But as it stands, she said she’s barely breaking even each week.

Janet McLaughlin is executive director of Vermont Birth to Five, a program that trains and mentors early childhood professionals across the state. The reactions she’s heard from home-based providers run the full spectrum.

“This is a huge jump after almost 20 years without updates,” McLaughlin said. “There are providers who have been operating under the same set of guidelines for their entire career.”

A looming epidemic

Children have run through Merry Ann Gilbert’s Milton home-based program for more than 28 years.

“It’s like their home,” she said. “It’s a cozy little place that’s their own.”

But after nearly three decades of childcare, Gilbert said she’s unsure what her next move will be. Gilbert made it through one-quarter of the rulebook before shutting it in frustration.

“There are things they’re asking us to do that just don’t make sense for one person,” she said. “What are we going to do? We throw up our hands.”

Gilbert estimates she’ll have to spend between $7,000 and $10,000 to get into compliance. But that’s not giving her the most trouble.

Regulations require increased documentation of pick-up and drop-off times, the time and manner of evacuation drills and any accidents or injuries, among other things. Gilbert said with eight children, this could add at least two hours to her day.

“[Providers are] already working 10 hours. It’s nuts to expect them to work more than that,” she said. “[But] if they’re really going to stay in compliance, they’ll have to.”

In neighboring Colchester, Trisha DiFonzo has a running checklist of new regulations to tackle on her days off. Closing, she said, is not an option.

“There’s going to be changes [and] different things that you need to do that you might not necessarily like,” DiFonzo said. “But you do it, because it brings your paycheck and pays your bills.”

Ploof and a child in her care play with Legos earlier this month. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Ploof and a child in her care play with Legos earlier this month. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Ploof, DiFonzo and Gilbert all said providers’ suggestions were ignored or overlooked as the regulations were being developed. Murphy, however, said the process was collaborative and said the regs are best practice.

But Gilbert said she and her fellow providers might be unable to – or could refuse to – make the changes.

About once a month, Gilbert meets with more than a dozen registered home providers in Milton through a program called Starting Points. At the last meeting, she said about one in three attendees weren’t sure they’d stay open through next year.

“Basically, providers are going to close or just stay in business for the full year we have to get into compliance,” Gilbert said. “They’re just going to wait until next year when licensing starts coming around.”

Laura Butler has been in the childcare business for 26 years. She leads the Starting Points group in Milton and hosts meetings in her home. She also wears two hats: provider and Vermont Birth to Five employee.

Butler eliminated her tall climbing structures to save money, just as Murphy suggested. But one of her home’s bathrooms isn’t vented – a new requirement that could cost up to $6,000.

“I don’t have that kind of money,” she said.

Butler agrees, though, that regulations desperately needed an overhaul and appreciates the flexibility allowed in the first year.

“They really could have held our feet to the fire, and they’re not,” Butler said. “I’m going to find a way to work with it, and they’ll find a way to work with me.”

Still, Butler said her heart breaks for folks without a GED or high school diploma, a new mandate. One 66-year old Milton provider has neither, Butler said, and does not plan to go back to school.

That regulation troubles DiFonzo, too, saying many of those providers “have more experience than any of us could imagine because they’ve seen it all.”

Murphy said the state believes a high school diploma is a “pretty minimal” threshold to expect. She estimates only a handful of providers currently lack the qualification.

Those providers can apply for a variance by proving a significant hardship prevents them from obtaining the certificate, Murphy said, but no general grandfather clause exists.

“One of the greatest correlations between good outcomes for kids and quality childcare is education level,” Murphy said.

But Gilbert says the community can’t afford to lose any more providers.

“I see a future in Vermont of a major shortage in home daycares,” Gilbert said. “It’s going to be an epidemic. It’s going to be a real struggle for families to find quality childcare.”

Stalled at the start

A study conducted by Let’s Grow Kids, a sister organization of Vermont Birth to Five, examined the supply of and demand for childcare in Vermont. LGK found 89 percent of infants and toddlers likely to need care do not have access to high-quality, regulated childcare programs.

The report also included information about affordability, noting middle-income Vermont families with two working parents and two young children spend between 28 and 40 percent of their combined annual income on childcare.

At more than $19,000 a year, the cost tops tuition prices at nearby state colleges, the report, called “Stalled at the Start,” said.

The study also noted the average childcare provider makes less than $25,000 a year, usually without benefits. The figure falls below the state standard for a livable wage, according to LGK.

Gubernatorial candidates Sue Minter and Phil Scott offer suggestions to make Vermont childcare more affordable at a debate last Friday. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Gubernatorial candidates Sue Minter and Phil Scott offer suggestions to make Vermont childcare more affordable at a debate last Friday. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

The imbalance has prompted high turnover rates among providers and a vacuum of slots for children.

The childcare talent drain damages one of the most vulnerable populations, McLaughlin said, noting experts believe 90 percent of brain development happens before age 5.

Last Friday, LGK hosted a forum for gubernatorial candidates Sue Minter and Phil Scott entirely devoted to childhood nutrition, family leave and childcare shortages.

Minter laid out plans to provide two free years of community college for providers. Scott proposed housing programs in empty schoolrooms to cut costs. Both were interested in the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission study on financing childcare, to be released next month.

But Scott already predicted the report’s findings: Childcare is too expensive, and providers don’t make enough to make the effort worthwhile.

McLaughlin said LGK and Vermont Birth to Five developed a survey to analyze the potential cost burdens for providers. It’s an anonymous questionnaire, but McLaughlin said the group might share its general findings.

“The puzzle of how to create care that is high quality, affordable and accessible is incredibly tough,” she said. “We’re trying to work on all of those angles.”

In the meantime, Murphy and McLaughlin both encourage providers to take advantage of a mock licensing visit and the one-year window before making any major financial investments.

Murphy promises state licensors will work with providers to navigate the new rules. A guidebook will likely come out early next year, she said. The state will also implement corrective action plans, rather than immediately shut down non-compliant programs.

“These are our children,” Murphy said. “Let’s get used to these together.”