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Is day care safe during the coronavirus pandemic? It depends. Here are some guidelines.

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Alexander, Cassidy
Publication Date: 
18 May 2020


Child care during the coronavirus pandemic can best be described as clinical. 

Temperature checks, hand-washing and face masks are constants at preschools and child care centers around the country. Class sizes have limits, and some lunchrooms and common areas are off-limits. The safety measures pose a constant reminder to families: These are not normal times. 

As parts of the country tiptoe back toward more normal routines, working parents are desperate for child care. Still, they must weigh the risks of sending their children outside the safety of their homes to be cared for by someone else.

The big question: Is it safe? 

“We don’t know,” said Danette Glassy, a Seattle-area pediatrician. “There’s no scientific answer to that question until we have more time under our belts.” 

Parents and day care providers should consider the size of the outbreak in their area and commit to health and safety measures recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The goal: Reduce exposure to the virus wherever possible. 

A few blocks from the ocean, Imagination Station in Daytona Beach, Florida, was closed through April. Now children are back at the facility every day – but they interact with the same small groups of classmates, wash their hands over and over and play only with toys that can be easily cleaned. Owner Kim Vukelja said she reopened because her employees wanted to come back to work.

“You’re on a precipice,” she said. “You don’t know which way to go.”

Enrollment is a fraction of what it usually is, but the parents who send their kids each day are grateful for the help. 

“Basically, we felt the virus is not going to go anywhere,” Melissa Owens said as she dropped off her 4-year-old daughter, Cora, at Imagination Station. She works for an agency that staffs clinical labs, like the ones that process coronavirus tests. “We just need to be vigilant to make sure our school is going to keep students and parents safe with all the protocols.”

At Imagination Station, those protocols include allowing only one parent to pick up or drop off a child, at assigned and staggered times. A teacher in a mask takes the child’s temperature with a contactless thermometer before he or she can go inside. Children have to deposit their lunchboxes in class-specific bins, so there’s less cross-contamination. They go to the playground, then must wash their hands before they do anything else. Their parents may not come inside. 

Children of health care providers, first responders and other essential workers have returned to day cares in almost every state, following similar routines. 

For many parents, it’s more than a safety decision. It’s an economic one. They cannot work if they cannot send their children somewhere during the day. 

Figuring out whether that’s a good idea depends on a lot of factors, said Kate Connor, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University and the medical director of the Rales Health Center at KIPP Baltimore, a charter school. 

“ ‘Safe’ is a relative term now,” Connor said. “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.”

Where you live matters

Providers and parents must consider the infection rate in their community. There are nearly 1.5 million confirmed cases in the USA, but the actual number is probably much higher. 

Ideally, where child care providers reopen, there will have been at least two weeks of declining or plateauing hospitalizations and deaths, Connor said. There will be enough testing to identify new cases. And there will be enough people in the public health network who are trained in contact tracing: tracking where infected people have been and notifying people who might have been exposed. 

All of that is hard for people to discern on their own. That’s why state-specific information such as stay-at-home orders and guidance on phased reopenings is so important. Every day, state officials announce updates and ease restrictions based on what they see.

Still, if a state is reopening, that doesn’t necessarily mean everything is fine.

“You will still have to always assume that the person you’re interacting with could have COVID,” Glassy said. 

It's unclear how big a role children may play in the spread of the virus to adults. Adults and children with compromised immune systems or preexisting conditions are always at increased risk. 




Entered Date: 
20 May 2020
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