Providers question feasibility of childcare guidelines

How do you teach children sharing if they can’t share?

CHILDREN RETURNING to daycare will no longer be encouraged to play together. Caregivers will wear face coverings. Public playgrounds will be off limits. Class sizes will be smaller.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday released detailed health and safety guidelines that daycares will need to follow in order to reopen.

Baker called the guidelines a “very comprehensive and effective and implementable proposal” that recognizes how important childcare is to families in Massachusetts.

But as providers begin to digest the new guidelines, questions are already beginning to emerge about how feasible they are, practically and financially.

Keira Durrett, director of The Williston Northampton Children’s Center in Easthampton, said new rules about class sizes and space would require her to reduce capacity from the 52 kids in four classrooms that the center had in early March to around 25 children. The tuition would not be enough to cover her costs. “It would definitely mean reducing the number of staff that we have, and even so we would not make it financially,” Durrett said.

Previously, daycares had been ordered shut through June 29. According to state officials, that date is no longer relevant. Now, daycares will be allowed to reopen during phase two of the state’s reopening plan – which could begin as early as next week – but only once they write reopening plans and get them approved by the Department of Early Education and Care. The state has not yet distributed a template for those plans.

Under the new guidelines, childcare facilities will have to care for children in groups of no more than 10, with no more than 12 people, including staff, allowed in a room at once. The size of the group will depend on age. So, for example, a group can include seven infants with two staffers or 10 preschool children with two staffers.

At all times, children and staff will have to be kept six feet apart, as much as feasible. Accordingly, programs will be required to have at least 42 square feet of space per child. Activity stations will emphasize individual play over group activities. There will be no direct contact other than what is necessary – no hugs or hand holding.

Staff will be required to wear face coverings when interacting with children. The guidelines say healthy children over two years old should be encouraged to wear face coverings, when it is safe and at the discretion of parents or staff. Masks will not be worn while eating, drinking, or napping and can be removed outside if children can stay apart from each other. Parents will have to wear masks when dropping children off.

Daycares will not be allowed to use materials that are shared or cannot easily be cleaned – things like play dough, water tables, or stuffed animals.

Anyone entering the facility, including children and staff, will undergo a health check, answering questions about whether they currently have symptoms, having their temperature taken and facing a visual inspection. Children showing signs of illness will not be allowed to enter. Staggered drop-off and pick-up times will be encouraged. Staff or children who are exposed to COVID-19 must stay home for 14 days.

Upon entering, children will wash their hands or use hand sanitizer. Staff and children will be required to repeatedly wash their hands – before and after eating, after using the bathroom, after coughing or sneezing, or after using shared equipment.

Children cannot use public playgrounds or pools. Private playgrounds can be used, if they are cleaned between each group of children. Drinking fountains requiring contact cannot be used. Field trips will be canceled.

Childcare facilities will need to develop plans for a range of operations including regular cleaning, identifying and isolating sick children and staff, administering medication, and communicating with parents.

There are specific guidelines that address the unique needs of special needs children and of infants and toddlers, who require more hands-on care. For example, any clothing that gets a child’s bodily fluid on it – whether on a staff member or a child – will have to be changed.

Durrett said in addition to financial concerns, she worries about the impact of the guidelines on children long-term. “We don’t want children to hear that it’s not safe to play or be around other children,” Durrett said. “What we’re trying to teach them is the world is a safe, happy place.”

Durrett added that it becomes nearly impossible to teach children lessons like how to share if they are not allowed to share.

Christy Little, a Southampton childcare provider who is licensed to care for six children in her home, worries about protocols requiring providers to change their clothes, or a child’s clothes, any time clothing touches bodily fluid. She has a teething infant enrolled in her care who drools. “That’s not realistic when caring for babies,” Little said. “I can’t be changing a smock every five minutes.”

She is unsure where to find a transparent face mask, which the guidelines encourage providers to try, or how she will comply with guidelines requiring an eye covering when feeding or washing babies. “If I have lower numbers, I might be able to do it, but then there’s a question of if I can afford to do it with lower numbers,” Little said.

Shawna Tobin, director of Sunnyside, a Northampton childcare center, said she thinks the standards can be met with “lots of planning and thoughtful intentionality.” Teachers can set up a place where a child can take a break from their mask. They can reorganize spaces, prepare families, and work to help families reintegrate into new methods of social interaction.

Like the other providers, Tobin worries about money. She estimated that start-up costs will be double what they were before, with added costs for things like purchasing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies and buying more materials so children don’t have to share.

Tobin said of her teachers, “They’re going to find a way to cultivate an amazing day with young children one day at a time with this transition, but it’s not going to be easy and it won’t happen overnight.”

The state Office of Early Education and Care has said it will offer grants to childcare providers to help them during the first two months of reopening.

The same guidance document also lays out standards governing summer day camps for older children.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Camps will have to operate in groups of less than 12 children and counselors. Children attending camp will have to maintain six-foot distances, minimize equipment sharing and not take field trips. On group transportation, children will have to be seated apart from each other and parents of younger children will have to provide their own car seats or booster seats. There will be daily health screenings, and non-essential adults – like parent volunteers and visitors – will not be allowed to enter.

Overnight camps are not allowed to open until the third phase of Baker’s plan.