Mount Holyoke child care center closing spurs protest

  • Students walk to and from the Mount Holyoke College Blanchard Campus Center on Nov. 16. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2021 8:02:29 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Mount Holyoke College on Wednesday announced that it will shutter the Gorse Children’s Center and suspend on-campus child care operations at the end of June, prompting outcry from community members who rely on the center.

The announcement has left families scrambling to find an alternative among child care centers that are stretched thin with long waiting lists, according to parents who spoke with the Gazette. Now, families, staff and community members are calling for the college to rescind its decision and look for alternative solutions.

The center, which opened in 1952 as the Gorse Lab School, is on the college’s campus and managed by Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a Watertown child care provider partnered with over 1,100 organizations, according to its website. With the college’s contract with Bright Horizons set to expire on June 30, Mount Holyoke officials “made the very difficult decision to not renew” the agreement, said college spokeswoman Christian Feuerstein.

According to an announcement posted on the college’s website, “expenses to operate Gorse exceed tuition,” and the college pays Bright Horizons an average of $325,000 annually to manage the center. Instead of renewing the contract, the college will add $100,000 to the Emergency Employee fund “to expand its financial support beyond those employees who chose Gorse Children’s Center for child care,” the announcement states.

Allison Lepper, a parent who enrolls her child at Gorse, said the announcement prompted “shock and sadness” among families. Lepper holds a particularly deep connection to Gorse: She was a student there herself 30 years ago, worked with the center during her time as a psychology student at Mount Holyoke, lives in South Hadley and now enrolls her son at the center.

“I’m not sure what families are going to do,” she said. “Personally, I’ve reached out to local day cares and been told there’s significant wait lists right now … and I really doubt that the other available day cares in the community have the capacity to absorb all the children that will need care if the college does in fact close the center.”

Feuerstein said she did not have information on how many children are currently enrolled at the center, and Bright Horizons could not be reached to provide a figure for enrollment or the number of staffers at Gorse.

Not enough notice

Choosing a child care provider is “not a decision that parents make lightly,” Lepper said, and many chose Gorse “for really important reasons,” such as their confidence in the school’s curriculum and staffing. Following the closure announcement, Lepper began circulating a letter of protest that she said gained hundreds of signatures within 12 hours.

Additionally, four months is “nowhere near enough notice to allow families to meaningfully secure alternative care,” Lepper said, particularly with child care in high demand as many parents struggle to balance working from home with caring for their children.

Jessica Maier, an associate professor of art history at Mount Holyoke and a parent of Gorse students, also spoke out against the announcement, calling Gorse an “absolutely critical” resource.

“Without full-time, quality child care, it’s impossible for me to do my job,” she said, which became “even more pronounced during COVID,” as many parents struggled to balance work and child care when centers had to shut down last spring. Like Lepper, Maier has had difficulty finding a child care center that will accept her children by the summer.

The announcement also runs antithetical to the college’s mission, according to Maier, which she characterized as “all about supporting women’s professional and career choices, personal choices and progressive causes in general.” But “women are bearing the burden of child care disproportionately, and this is going to contribute to that problem — not help alleviate it.”

Lepper agreed with this assessment.

With “the impact that loss of child care has on families — particularly women, who inevitably bear the child care responsibilities — it just seems inexplicably at odds with Mount Holyoke’s mission,” she said.

Community feedback

According to Feuerstein, the college will “provide financial support for employee child care for all eligible faculty and staff in the coming year,” which was previously available “only to employees who chose on-campus child care.”

An ad hoc group will also ask for campus community feedback on child care needs “and make recommendations for a more equitable solution” with “the potential to support the needs of a larger number of employees,” she added.

The college declined to make Gorse staff available for interviews.

Other area communities have also seen a reduction in child care centers over the past year: Sunnyside Early Education and Care in Northampton permanently closed last July after 45 years in operation, citing financial hardships intensified by the pandemic, while the kindergarten at the nearly 150-year old Hill Institute in Florence announced its shuttering due to declining enrollment a month earlier.

While parents are saddened at the news, they are not giving up the fight to keep Gorse open, Maier and Lepper said, and some families planned to protest the closure on campus Thursday evening.

Gorse “does not need to close,” Maier said. “There are other possible partnerships that could be explored if the one with this large corporation that is Bright Horizons doesn’t work out, and there’s a staff that is really wonderful already on site.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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