Preschools and childcare might reopen soon. Should you send your kid?

Last updated: 05-19-2020

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Preschools and childcare might reopen soon. Should you send your kid?

Last week I received an email from my younger son's preschool.

"We might be opening in June. If so, we will be taking a number of precautions. Please let us know in the next week if you would be interested in sending your child."

Interested? Of course, I'm interested. He would get a chance to socialize, surrounded by the teachers and friends he loves. I would get to work in a quieter environment — and would certainly be more productive when free of a certain "colleague" who doesn't entirely respect the demands of journalism.

His school, his darling, perfect school, would get a chance to get back up and running, increasing the odds that they will get through the pandemic financially intact.

But how to weigh all this obvious good against the very obvious bad? Sending him to school could lead to him getting sick and others getting sick.

As preschools and childcare centers move toward opening up or start to allow the children of nonessential workers, more parents will be facing down a similar question: Should I send my kid?

Spoiler: There is no easy answer, and what's right for one family might be wrong for another. But there are certain things all parents should be considering when making a decision.

While children don't appear to be at high risk for Covid-19, they can, a number of studies have suggested, be asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus. Also, experts have identified a potential link between the coronavirus and Kawasaki disease, a rare childhood syndrome that can make children critically ill. As such, preschools or childcare centers that open their doors to the wider community should be incorporating a number of new protocols.

"One of the most important things for parents to remember is that while we can never prevent the spread, we can reduce the risk of exposure to Covid-19," said Abbey Alkon, an epidemiologist, pediatric nurse practitioner and professor at University of California, San Francisco's School of Nursing, who focuses on children's health.

"There are guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in childcare programs."

While licensing regulations for childcare centers vary state by state, there are a number of best practices that Alkon recommended: Parents should no longer be entering the facility, meaning hellos and goodbyes need to happen outside, nor should parents be using the same pen to sign in their children.

The center should provide hand sanitizer or handwashing stations at the entrance, so children and staff can clean their hands before entering. Childcare providers should wear masks since they are physically close to the children, and often less than 6 feet away.

There should be frequent handwashing during the day for children and staff; regular cleaning and disinfecting of the facilities; and an effort to get as much fresh air circulating through the premises as possible. Snacks and meals should be served to each child to avoid children sharing utensils or food.

Also, you and your child should expect daily health checks by the childcare provider, or you may be asked to do them at home. These should include taking the child's temperature, as well as monitoring for shortness of breath, dry cough, gastrointestinal symptoms or a skin rash.

A safer facility might have less furniture around — the more room there is for children to roam, the farther away they will be able to stay from another. Lastly, children should be in stable and small groups and be assigned to one teacher or provider. This way, if someone gets the coronavirus, the whole preschool or childcare center won't be exposed, and it will be easier to do contact tracing.

Alkon also encouraged parents to ask if their childcare center has a relationship with a health provider or a childcare health consultant. "Then you can be assured that the director has someone to talk to when they need advice about how to provide a healthy and safe environment," she said.

Another thing to consider is the quality of school-parent communications. Is there transparency? Or do you feel like you have to beg for information?

"Parents should be asking a lot of questions of the childcare provider and making sure they understand what the new protocols are that the center has been implementing," said Stephen Kramer, CEO of Bright Horizons, the largest provider of employer-sponsored childcare in the United States. "If they don't get the answers that make them feel comfortable, they should decide it is not time to go back."

Bright Horizons has been running centers for essential workers in recent months, and Kramer said that, based on his observations, the protocols they've taken appear to be effective.

"People should take confidence in the fact that we continue to operate 150 centers across the country, and we would never be doing that if we couldn't be doing it in a way that is safe and healthy," he said, adding that many of their centers are run in partnership with employers, who demand safe conditions for their workers.

If avoiding risk of getting Covid-19 was the only concern, this decision would probably be much easier: Don't send them. But for most of us, financial concerns and psychological well-being — and that includes kids' and parents' — also need to be considered.

As for parents, the stress of either trying to work at home without childcare or being unable to work because of a lack of childcare, is significant.

Nina Perez, early childhood national campaign director at MomsRising, an advocacy group, said a concern among many of their members is if work returns before childcare, they will be laid off.

"Families are worried. They don't know when this is going to end, and they're wondering if they need to leave their jobs. They're also worried that if they talk to their employers about how they are struggling, their employers, if they end up downsizing, might let them go," she said.

There are the developmental needs of children to keep in mind, as well.

"All the Zoom meetings in the world aren't an adequate substitute for the kind of learning that goes on in preschool," said Rhian Evans Allvin, chief executive officer at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "There is literally no such thing as online preschool, because so much happens in the relationships between children, and educators and children."

In addition to missing opportunities to socialize and problem solve, children might also be experiencing added stress. A safe and well-executed return to school could help.

"Children are very resilient, but we have not faced anything like this before," said Jennifer Carpenter, director of The Lena Pope Early Learning Center in Fort Worth, Texas. "I am a licensed clinical social worker, so the most important thing to me [when thinking about reopening] is to try to make sure our children are socially and emotionally healthy."

While no family should be expected to send their child to preschool in order to help out the preschool, it's worth considering your school or center's future when making the decision.

According to industry experts, childcare centers have taken a huge hit during the pandemic, and their recovery is uncertain. The longer these centers go without any income or significant and sustained government support, the less likely they are to make it through.

"Childcare is based on supply and demand, and if there is no demand, suddenly and dramatically, it is tough to recover," said Evans Allvin, explaining how childcare centers and preschools run on low profit margins even in the best of times.

The coronavirus pandemic could potentially lead to the loss of nearly 4.5 million childcare slots across the country, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress.

Carpenter said that even if centers manage to survive the pandemic, the financial squeeze may lead them to risk losing beloved staff.

"If you furlough someone, there is absolutely no guarantee that they are going to return," she said. "The turnover rate for the childcare field is 40% or higher, and we have worked so very hard to get our rate below that. I would want to do anything possible to avoid that."

If parents are scared to send their kids back to childcare and can get by without the coverage, there are other ways to help. Evans Allvin suggested pushing for more government support for the childcare system, which, even in pre-pandemic times, was far from comprehensive.

"It's unfortunate how we got here, but the light is shining on the opportunities we have to create a new path forward. It is going to be all of your jobs as parents and advocates to be really vigilant about insisting on a better way to build childcare," she said. "It took a dramatic shift like this for people to see just how valuable it is."


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