Update: Saturday, the state changed the preschool ratios again, back to the original modification of one adult for every 10 preschoolers. Class sizes are still restricted to 10 preschoolers, half of what was allowed pre-pandemic. The commissioner of early education and care has agreed to meet with center providers to hear their concerns. The post, which originally published June 12, has been updated.
As child care providers figure out how to reopen under new public health rules, many parents are considering whether to send their kids back to group care. And some providers are wondering if the entire market could shift to home-based care.
The biggest challenge may be keeping kids apart.
“Toddlers run around, they want to hug each other, they put things in their mouths,” Amy Scheuerman, of Somerville, said. “No amount of sanitizing the floor is going to stop anything if they’re licking each other.”
Scheuerman is not sending her 2-year-old Ramsey back to Rock and Roll Daycare in Cambridge when it reopens. Her husband has asthma and three weeks ago they had their second child, Wesley.
“As much as we just love what he’s getting out of day care and what he’s learning there, it does still seem like it’s still a high-risk situation,” she said of sending her kids to group care. “That means we’re exposed to anything that all those families are exposed to. And there’s no way for us to know what those families are exposed to.”
Now, Scheuerman is looking for a nanny to come to her home in Somerville. She feels fortunate to be able to afford that, but it’s bittersweet.
“I feel sad for my kids,” she said, as Wesley slept in her arms. “Because I don’t know if they’re going to have a lot of those experiences that me and my husband grew up with where you get to go out and just play with a bunch of other kids or whisper together with your friend in class.”
She’s not alone. Nationally, families looking for in-home child care has more than doubled on Waltham-based Care.com. The company has not seen a similar increase in its home state, but CEO Tim Allen expects “the same type of spike” as the state reopens more.
“There is a new normal emerging for childcare, and summer will accelerate this curve whether it is the cancellation of camp, summer activities, or even no longer being able to spend time at a grandparents home,” he said in a statement.
That “new normal” is a concern for providers. Could it mean families won’t feel comfortable with group care under the public health restrictions, and beyond?
“There’s a big unknown about how comfortable parents will feel coming back to group care settings,” Massachusetts Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy said in an interview with WBUR. “We know we need to reopen child care in a healthy and safe way, but we also know we need to respond to the needs of families, which are changing as well.”
Providers can file their reopening plans starting Monday. State officials say they have over 200 staff and licensors ready to verify plans comply with the health and safety requirements and grant conditional approval to reopen. Final approval is promised within 60 days.
But for many, reopening won’t be easy.
“I don’t think that our industry comes back the way it was before,” said Christopher Vuk, CEO of Rock and Roll Daycare, which has five locations and was on track to open five more this year, before the pandemic paused construction.
“I’ve spent the last eight years building this and I know many of my colleagues have spent decades doing this, and the thought of all of our hard work and our love for kids and the ability to provide this type of service — it might go away,” he said.
Vuk estimates spending as much as $30,000 to adapt his five centers for socially distant care. He’ll also have to offer shorter hours for families due to staffing constraints under the new rules.
According to a survey of 155 licensed centers by the advocacy group Daycares United, which Vuk founded shortly after the pandemic, 60% of families said they would return to center-based care right away.
“It’s so restrictive,” Vuk said of the regulations. “And if parents can stay home a little longer or have a nanny, I think a lot might do that.”
Vuk is among those parents. He will be keeping his 4-year-old twins at home instead of returning to group care. It’s also part of the reason he is launching a new arm of his business: Rock and Roll NannyShare. In the first few days since it launched, he received 250 applications from families looking to be matched.
Vuk is also advocating for the state to loosen some of the restrictions on social distancing and staffing, while protecting public health. State regulators did update the requirements this week, softening a few of the mandates. The regulations have changed the ratio of adults to preschoolers twice, but still is limiting each classroom to no more than 10 children.
“As a provider, I can look at the financial concern and the viability of our program, but ultimately it comes down to: the rights of the child are being violated through these sets of regulations,” said Vuk. “The health and mental wellness of the child has been completely ignored during this process, and it’s completely frustrating and saddening.”
Friday, Daycares United gave its own proposed health and safety regulations to state officials. The commissioner has agreed to meet with the group to hear their concerns.
“We’ve been having town halls, getting thousands of emails and pieces of feedback and have really tried to find every bit of flexibility we could,” the commissioner told WBUR Monday, pointing to the revision in preschool ratios as an example. “That is coming from trying to work with providers as much as possible to find all of the areas of operational flexibility while we still focus on keeping these environments protected from COVID.”
Recent communications from the state agency have emphasized that each licensed provider is expected to come up with plans that work for their specific setting.
“We do not intend to be punitive in any situation for children that are being children,” Commissioner Aigner-Treworgy said Tuesday before the state’s ratio guidelines changed. “But we do want the experts in the field to make sure that they are designing their environments and activities in ways that can help make sure that we’re putting in the protective measures to keep everyone safe.”
Some already have adapted, even if they can’t hug any more.
“Innately, it’s just what we do,” home care provider Dorothy Williams said of hugging. “We’re just wired that way.”
Williams has been running child care out of her home in Dorchester for 13 years. Over the last three months, she’s been caring for seven children of first responders. Knowing that children think concretely, she uses stuffed animals to show affection.
“So I’m hugging the teddy bear, but I’m hugging them, too,” she said. “And that seems to be OK, because they’re able to make that connection with that stuffed animal or doll.”
Williams has always cared for at-risk kids. About 70% of the kids she typically serves live below the federal poverty line. So she knows how important it is to create a safe space for kids. Even with masks on and space between them, she believes she can still do that work.
“Toddlers are not able to verbalize,” she said. “But they will act it out in their behavior. They may not want to eat. They might be a little bit short-tempered. Because they feel frustration just like we do.”
So she gives them crayons and paint to help process those big emotions. Soothing the very real, grown-up worries about the effects of socially distant child care on children’s well-being won’t be as simple.
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