A regular Source feature, Undercurrents slips below the surface of Virgin Islands daily routines and assumptions to explore in greater depth the beauty, the mystery, the murky and the disregarded familiar. It is our bid to get to know the community more deeply.
The coming year could prove a make-or-break situation for some of the scores of privately operated day care centers and preschools throughout the territory.
An alarming number of children enter Virgin Islands schools already behind in their development, according to government officials, and an estimated one-third of new students are coming not directly from home, but rather through the centers serving ever increasing numbers of working parents.
While the government can do little more than encourage families to improve the nurturing and learning environments for stay-at-home tykes, it has considerably more control over day care facilities since they must be licensed through the Department of Human Services and often benefit, directly or indirectly, from government subsidies.
The DHS website lists nearly 100 licensed private centers in the Virgin Islands, 55 in the St. Thomas-St. John district and 38 on St. Croix. Additionally, there are 45 government-run Head Start programs, 27 on St. Croix and 18 for St. Thomas and St. John.
The move to improve early child care facilities has been in the works for several years and is encapsulated in revised rules and regulations officially adopted in April 2011. The biggest change is a significant increase in required training for directors and staff at centers. Operators have until June 2014 to comply, but will need to begin the training about a year before then in order to meet the deadline.
Other changes include increased numbers of personnel and increased physical space per child, CPR and first aid certification for all staff members, and the prohibition of transporting children under age 10 on field trips via safari bus.
While there has been no public outcry, some operators are murmuring about the time and expense it will cost them to comply with regulations they see as both onerous and unnecessary.
But to regulators at the Department of Human Services, it’s all about the children.
Things have changed since the V.I. first adopted rules and regulations for day care facilities in the 1980s.
“In the last 30 years, a lot has happened in research on brain development,” said Olga Santos, head of the Office of Child Care and Regulatory Services at DHS. It has been shown that learning begins much earlier than previously thought, that stress can inhibit brain development and that a comforting environment actually causes the brain to release endorphins that promote learning.
Santos recounted a videotaped session she viewed at a conference, featuring a mother and her baby.
While the woman smiled and spoke to the baby, she was able to engage him in simple play expressing motor skills and babbling. When the woman stopped talking and became stone-faced, the baby became increasingly frustrated and angry, began to flay its arms and pound things, and finally dissolved into despondent wailing.
The depravation lasted only a few moments, but it illustrated the absolute necessity of interaction in child development.
While the concept of nurturing has long been a component of successful child care, Santos said, “We need to add education. We want to upgrade these centers from early care to early care plus education.”
Human Services is requiring more training for day care center directors and teachers “so they could learn what we have learned,” she said.
A few already have more than enough education to meet the new requirements, as they hold a bachelor’s degree or an associates of arts degree in Early Childhood Education. But the majority will need to attend classes and earn what is called a Child Development Associate credential, which Santos said is a “nationally recognized credential.”
It won’t be easy. Santos said the CDA requires 120 classroom hours. She expects that most people will continue to work and pursue the certificate on a part-time schedule, and probably will take about a year to complete the coursework.
All directors and all workers who are counted as staff for the purposes of meeting staff-to-child ratios (for example, one adult for every five children under age 12 months; one adult for every six children age 1 to 2 years old, one adult for every eight children aged 2 to 3 years old, etc.) must at a minimum obtain the CDA credential. Volunteers and staff not counted in the ratio do not need the CDA.
Human Services has hired a consultant who will actually design the V.I. program and attempt to make it as accessible as possible to directors and day care staff. Santos is hopeful the program will begin by January 2013.
“We’ll cover at least 75 percent of the cost,” she said, but exact figures for tuition aren’t available yet. She estimated the cost of books for the course at $400.
A small, random sampling revealed not all day care operators are happy about the new regulations.
“I have to have a degree to watch babies?” asked Patricia George, director at A+ Preschool. “I’ve been doing this for years. It’s something that’s just normal like being a mother. All of a sudden you want to be technical about it.”
George said she was certified in Florida and the center does train its staff and believes in training, but she sees the new rules as overkill.
“To me it’s a political thing and they’re robbing people of their jobs,” she said. “They want to eliminate all day care.”
Still, she said, she will comply. “What can you do? It really doesn’t matter. They make the rules because we don’t have a say.”
Saye Lewis, director of Geliads Day Care (formerly Mafolie Day Care) described the new regulations as burdensome and added, “It just puts some of us out of the way.”
Reviewing the increased staff-to-child ratios, she said, “So then we’d have to hire two more people. You have to pay these people.”
Moreover, she said she’s already lost one of her veteran staff members who quit because she felt she wouldn’t be able to complete the coursework necessary for the CDA credential.
Another concern is the new space requirements, which Santos said come from Fire Services, not DHS, and reflect safety concerns. The required minimum space per child has increased from 25 to 35 square feet and could conceivably mean some centers will need to expand their facilities or lower the number of children they serve.
Santos said the regulators aren’t insensitive to the concerns of day care operators, but she believes they, like DHS, have the children’s interests at heart.
“There are people who love this field,” she said. “They can see making the sacrifices is to do better for the kids.” Besides, “when you accept a child (into care) you make a commitment to that family.”