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What Daycares That Never Closed Can Tell Us About Re-Opening

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For Brittany Daily, the owner of two daycare centers in Youngstown, Ohio, business never closed. Catering to the children of essential employees, she actually expanded services due to demand. “We are bleaching and sanitizing toys constantly,” she says.

All parents know that daycares are the most germ-ridden places on Earth, and every daycare parent knows about “Daycare Syndrome,” the catchphrase for frequent upper respiratory infections common in group childcare. Yet centers servicing essential workers’ children have largely remained open without contributing to the spread of COVID-19, which gives us insight into how schools, camps and nonessential childcare spots can re-open and remain safe. ProPublica was told by a New Jersey official that there were no outbreaks (defined as two or more cases) in daycares open through the pandemic.

"As parents return to work and child care opens more broadly, there is likely some anxiety about broadening their children’s social circles," said the Pennsylvanian Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller in a press release referred by a media spokesperson. There, the risk of reopening daycares is buffered by use of CDC guidelines.

"With a young child, I think the developmental risks outweigh the risk of getting sick with COVID," John C. Nelson, M.D., an epidemiologist, told the New York Times recently. Others are more cautious.

Though the novel coronavirus is very infectious and has spread quickly worldwide, data suggest that children are rarely vectors for the virus, contrary to popular beliefs. A study by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands found that children almost never spread COVID-19, and only about 1% of cases worldwide have been in daycare-aged children. Likewise, a contact tracing study in France found that an infected child came into close contact with 172 classmates and only infected one other child. In Wuhan, China, where contract tracing was first put into place, children were found to be the lowest transmission group. This is good news for schools and daycares, as adhering to the guidelines set out by the CDC and WHO is quite difficult for young children. We talked to several daycares that remained open during the pandemic about just how they managed.

Dailey, in Ohio, originally had just one center in East Palestine, but was able to open another location in the New Waterford community to serve additional children of essential workers. She was required to lower the number of children in each room so that there was less crowding, but since not every attendee had parents in an essential job, this was possible. Parents also had to remove shoes for pickup and drop off, and cleaning intensified throughout the center.

Early in the pandemic, guidelines were fuzzy. Spots were needed for the children of essential workers, but nothing official was yet in place. Ohio, like many states, just released their official daycare guidelines in May when all centers were allowed to reopen. Dailey’s families rolled with the changes, and fully understood why they were necessary. Neither of her centers had any cases of COVID-19. “It is a whole new ballgame running our centers now compared to before this all started. Be prepared for more restrictions, and things continuing to change.”

Amanda*, a nurse in Omaha, Nebraska, found out that the daycare she used for her two children would not be able to remain open during the lockdown phase of the pandemic. Since the infant room had a half door and the toddler/preschool rooms were separated by a non-permanent divider, the center could not guarantee they would keep groups of children separate.

As a single mom, she needed childcare to be able to continue working. She took some paid leave at first, then used some friends to fill in, but none of this was sustainable long term. Another daycare in her community that typically served medically fragile children closed to that high-risk population, but began taking the children of essential workers. Amanda was able to get her kids a spot, but has been nervous about some of the guidelines. People initially adhered closely to directives. More recently, behaviors have slipped. “I’ve noticed that very few people wear masks when picking up their kids now, as cases have been low in our area and people seem to be relaxing.” In response, the center now has parents drop their kids off outside the door where a staff takes their temperature and escorts them inside. Her original daycare should have been allowed to open June 1, but has not reopened yet. The director has told her they are reviewing the most recent revisions and formulating a plan to reopen the center. Many centers struggle to meet new guidelines.

Gwen Marcus is the director of the childcare program at Project Destiny in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While her center usually has a capacity of 28 children, they reduced to 12 spots during the red phase of the pandemic. Outside drop-offs, twice-daily temperature checks, and a change of shoes for children once they entered the center were only part of it. Staff wear scrubs and shoe covers, each child has their own box of art supplies to prevent touching, and hourly rounds disinfect high-contact surfaces. It is exhausting, but Marcus knows it is necessary. And kids adapt.

“In the beginning we had to do a lot of reminding the children about social distancing and not playing together and sharing toys. For the younger children this was a hard concept. The families were, to my surprise, so grateful and expressed their thanks often that we were providing childcare during this pandemic. We tried to provide an environment that was as normal as possible for the children in the midst of all the uncertainty.”

Despite the anxiety many parents have around returning to daycare and school, and despite the myriad of COVID-19 restrictions now in place, this data and experiences show that it can be done with low risk to our children and others. It will look different than it has in the past, but children — sometimes even more so than parents — are adaptable.

Marcus is not concerned at all about the long-term implementation of childcare throughout the pandemic, as she has seen success at her own center. “I believe these changes will not just work, but continue for a long while — if not permanently. Why stop doing something that keeps people safe?”

*Last name withheld for privacy concerns.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support.