VERMONT (WFFF) — Sen. Bernie Sanders visited Vermont community health centers and childcare facilities Wednesday to hear from staff members about the challenges they’ve faced during the past 14 months.

As chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders has been a vocal advocate for universal child care, an issue he says needs to be at the top of the agenda in Washington. “At the end of the day, we cannot treat workers in child care and pre-kindergarten as second-class citizens,” he said. “The work they’re doing with the little ones is quite as important as the work any educator is doing.”

Sanders’ five-stop tour included visits to Bristol Mountain Health, Community Health Rutland, Rutland High School, Rutland Regional Medical Center, and Addison County Parent-Child Center.

Donna Bailey, Director of the Addison County Parent-Child Center, said 2020 was likely the worst year in the center’s history. It reopened in September. “We’ve learned a lot this year about staying healthy and how to be safe,” she said. “But I think the challenges are yet to be seen as far as the impact on people’s lives, their mental health, and what happens next.”

Child care has burdened families and providers across the country and in Vermont. At a national level, President Biden has proposed an American Families Plan that would provide a $425 billion investment in child care and pre-kindergarten services. As part of the American Rescue Plan, Vermont received over $33 million for its 11 community health centers. These facilities offer patients healthcare, dental care, and mental health treatment.

“The children are hurting, the parents are hurting, the economy has been hurting, so all the problems we previously had have been exacerbated,” Sen. Sanders said.

On average, Vermont families spend $20,000 a year on childcare. Meanwhile, early childhood educators earn roughly half the salary of a public school kindergarten teacher. On Friday, the Vermont Legislature took a significant step toward addressing the child care crisis by passing H.171, a bill that includes $12.7 million in immediate investments.

Parents at Addison County Parent-Child Center were happy to hear they could receive financial assistance but said others have struggled to find services at all. “One of my friends has two kids, only one is in school,” said Kilee Flemings. “She hasn’t been able to find good child care for her youngest that’s open and follows the guidelines the way they’re supposed to.”

During his stop at Community Health Rutland, Sanders met with staff and discussed the importance of Vermont’s community health center system, which serves nearly one-third of all Vermonters.

“This state and this country face a real challenge,” Sanders said. “We need more mental counselors, more psychologists, child psychiatrists. There’s a lot more work that has to be done, but I think in Washington we’re at least starting to recognize those problems, and hopefully, we’ll be adequately funding them.”