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Authority hopes to reopen child care program

Daily Item - 1/18/2020

Jan. 17--The Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority's executive director is working to obtain a state certification towards reopening the Nature's Cool child care program.

Whether Nature's Cool will remain a preschool or evolve into a daycare when its reintroduced, however, hasn't been finalized.

Shirley Nelson Brough said she must complete an online course before attending an in-person orientation next week concerning child daycare center regulations as she pursues a certificate of compliance from the Department of Human Services.

The goal is to reopen Nature's Cool next August, Brough said. The Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority (BVRA) operating board must decide on a model. It had been operated as a preschool with a defined curriculum, Brough said. A day care would need a defined program model but not a definitive curriculum, she said.

"Even if we get this (certification) it doesn't necessarily mean Nature's Cool will be exactly as it was before," Brough said, adding it likely would continue to incorporate nature-based learning. "We want to make sure what we reintroduce is done correctly."

The BVRA directors voted in December to indefinitely suspend the program at the conclusion of the fall semester. The suspension came after it was discovered BVRA violated state regulations by operating Nature's Cool without a certificate of compliance, Brough said.

Brough said the safety of children attending Nature's Cool was never in question. She said everyone involved had required clearances and that there was no direct risk to the kids. However, without the certification, she said BVRA was at risk.

"If anything had happened to the children while it operated that way it could have created a large liability and fines from the state," Brough said.

According to Brough, she discovered the issue in mid-November. Brough started the job Aug. 5. Nature's Cool had been operating for several years prior to her hiring. She replaced former executive director Stacey Sommerfield.

Brough said a parent reported the issue to the Department of Human Services. She was to do the same, she said, but the parent beat her to the punch as Brough had planned to call after disclosing the matter to BVRA board members.

"The Department of Human Services (DHS) has no record of the Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority applying for or receiving a certificate of compliance to operate a child care program. DHS has engaged with this organization about its Nature's Cool program in recent weeks and is working to resolve concerns about the program," Erin James, press secretary, DHS, said.

Former board chair Sandra Cook, who held that position when Nature's Cool launched, said it was her understanding through discussions with BVRA directors and the authority solicitor that Nature's Cool didn't need certification from the state since it operated as a part-day program: two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

"The reason we had a morning and afternoon program and didn't go straight through is we were not seeking state licensing," Cook said.

However, Brough said Nature's Cool operated 90 days in the fall and 100 days in the spring, exceeding a 70-day limit for part-day operations and requiring a certificate of compliance.

Though a state certification wasn't pursued, Cook said before Nature's Cool began as a five-day program, BVRA pursued state requirements for its Warming House property where the preschool was housed. She said its windows and doors were replaced and square-footage requirements per child and adult were followed.

There was confusion as to the program's certification when BVRA directors met in December. It was stated at the meeting that its certification expired. However, that certification applied only to BVRA's play garden area and it wasn't from the state. It was something akin to formal recognition from a nature-education advocacy group that the play garden was in use as a nature classroom.

The play garden was used, indeed, so much that Brough said it's in need of refurbishment, something she said she also plans to pursue.

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