Vermont, the state where I live, has the lowest coronavirus growth rate in the United States. With that, Gov. Phil Scott announced last week that daycares and summer camps will reopen June 1st with very strict guidelines. He and the Vermont Department of Health remain cautious and vigilant. Without clear guidance on a national level or even consistency state-to-state, I am grateful to have a leader who is compassionate, mindful, and trusting of our best scientists and doctors. He has put health above economics, but also knows the financial pinch many are feeling.
Without childcare, most families can’t return to work. As states across America start to open up, daycares and summer camps are part of that process too. But many people wonder if it is too soon. Is it safe?
“Safe” Has a New Meaning
The impacts of the pandemic and cases of COVID-19 have varied state to state. Each state has handled the pandemic in different ways. Sadly, an uncaring and unbiased virus has been made into a political and economic weapon. Death by ignorance should be a crime, yet flattening the curve was never meant to be a stay-at-home-until-a-vaccine-arrives marathon. We shouldn’t march in groups with guns and threaten to sue if we can’t go into a store unless we have a mask, but we can’t demand folks to not reopen their businesses and homes. And with that reopening comes the need for safe environments for kids while parents work.
Christina McLaughlin, Director of Essex Junction Recreation and Parks Preschool in Vermont tells Scary Mommy, “With proper guidance, financial resources, strict safety procedures and creative solutions to logistical hurdles, early educators are armed with what they need to bring the littlest members of our community back together safely.”
“‘Safe’ is a relative term now,” Kate Connor, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University and the medical director of the Rales Health Center at KIPP Baltimore tells USA Today. “All of these things are sort of risk-reduction traits essentially, but none of them will be 100%, particularly if COVID is still circulating in the community.”
So What Do the Guidelines Suggest?
The CDC has added guidelines to their website for how to reopen daycare centers and camps, but per the White House’s request they are mere “decision trees.” According to The Washington Post, longer guidelines are being reviewed by the White House. But as I type this, late May is approaching, and many states are already running daycares or about to reopen them.
The first question on the decision tree asks if directors are prepared to follow state and local guidelines. No matter what is being said on a national level, until your state has proper guidelines in order, daycares should not be reopened. The flow of yes/no questions on the CDC site includes the ability to screen staff and children for symptoms and history of exposure, intensify sanitizing, disinfecting, and ventilation practices, maintain social distancing rules, and monitor signs and symptoms of the virus.
Pick Up and Drop Off
Guidelines read that pick up and drop off times should be staggered and the same person should be bringing the child(ren) to care each day. All staff and guardians are required to wear cloth masks, and it’s recommended that children over the age of two wear one as well. The camp where my kids would be going to this summer require the kids to wear a clean cloth mask each day when indoors. The campers are all older than five. Before a child can enter a daycare building for the day, their temperature is taken, questions about exposure and symptoms are asked, and staff look at the child for visible signs of infection.
During the day, children will be kept in groups no larger than 25, but based on the age of the children, providers need to follow state mandates for adult to child ratio. Children will be kept in the same groups and spaces and will have the same providers as well. Within that space, physical distancing will need to be maintained, and toys that are played with or chewed on will need to be disinfected often or removed. Disinfecting is going to become the most important third wheel in this new provider/child relationship; commonly touched surfaces, kitchen areas, and bathrooms will need frequent attention. And when it comes to bathrooms, ideally each group will have their own space, but when that is not possible, certain bathrooms should be assigned to designated groups.
The Youngest Ones
Older children will learn the ways of our new normal, but infants and toddlers don’t give a fuck about social distancing. Holding, comforting, feeding, and cleaning up small children requires providers and kids to be in constant contact. In this case, frequent hand washing will be imperative. Clothes that have become soiled with a child’s secretions need to be removed and placed in a plastic bag or washing machine.
Some may think these guidelines are too much or unreasonable while others will say they are not enough.
Risk vs. Reward
When it comes to COVID-19, there is so much more at risk than our physical health. The longer we are asked to stay home or shelter in place, the more desperate folks become. Many Americans are struggling to work with kids underfoot or not able to pay bills because they can’t work without access to child care. Nearly 39 million Americans are unemployed and 40% of low-income households have experienced job losses. These include families who need child care and the child care providers themselves.
Folks who were already housing and food insecure are barely making ends meet. And those who were scraping by have slid into places where they may not be able to recover for a long time. Kids in the best of homes are struggling to make sense of the world; kids living in homes with greater stressors are hurting and in danger, especially if living in an abusive home. Many argue that the risk of sending kids back to daycare or summer camps is worth the reward.
Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, a statewide movement to ensure affordable access to high-quality child care for all Vermont families, says, “It is important to remember that in these uncharted pandemic waters, nothing is without risk.”
McLaughlin agrees that smart, calculated risks will benefit our children. “The isolation of young children is an emotional threat that we cannot ignore. [Opening daycares] will not be without its challenges, but the alternative where children are hidden away goes against everything that nurtures and enables them to grow.”
Some families will choose not to send their kids back to daycare or summer camps even if it is available. But many families don’t have that option.
McLaughlin tells Scary Mommy she feels supported and confident that her center will reopen successfully. She knows not all centers have this luxury. And when it comes to the kids, she sees their resiliency and desire for normalcy. “Yes, we will wear masks. Yes, we will do our best to social distance. Is that strange for a child? Yes, it is. But guess what? This is the new normal right now. Children are more than capable of understanding, coming along with us and embracing this if given the opportunity. Amidst a world of chaos, young children need a safe and familiar space to simply be.”