Sam DeRoze is almost 4 years old. After years of nanny care, he’s supposed to dive into his first organized school experience this fall. But the coronavirus pandemic has his mother mulling.
“I’ll need to see the plan from his preschool before I decide,” says Dianne DeRoze, a business consultant in Leesburg, Virginia. “If it’s safe and a positive experience, that’s valuable. What I don’t want is for him to have a knee-jerk reaction that school is this scary place you get dumped.”
DeRoze is among the millions of parents grappling with sending their children to preschool and babies to day care as cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, spike nationally.
The debate continues to rage among politicians and school officials on fall reopening plans. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that the city would be providing day care for 100,000 children to help working parents hampered by a planned partial school return.
President Donald Trump has pushed for a return to campus for older students, but the calculus is different for children ages 2 to 4, an impressionable phase that leaves parents concerned about the possible impact of exposing children to a mask- and temperature check-filled setting from which parents now are excluded for health reasons.
Gone are the days when clingy children could be escorted by mom or dad into a classroom for that momentous debut school experience. While protocols vary, many pre-K and day care facilities now have measures to keep teachers and children safe that include car drop-offs, fever checks and the wearing of masks or shields.
To help reassure parents, some day care facilities offer virtual tours, app-based fever and illness monitoring and updates, and in some cases in-class visits via apps or webcams.
Jessica Chang co-founded WeeCare to help connect parents with 2,500 child care facilities around the country. To help meet the coronavirus crisis moment, she and her Marina del Rey, California-based team created a feature within its app that allows parents to see facility fever counts at a glance.
Other measures undertaken by WeeCare providers include using air purifiers, encouraging outdoor play when possible, and parent “visits” with kids through the secure WeeCare app. And as with most day care providers who are accredited to take infants, new measures for babies focus on thoroughly sterilizing cribs and other crawling access areas as well as making sure parents wash all crib linens and clothes nightly.
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“We do see apprehension from parents who haven’t returned their kids to school yet,” says Chang, herself a mother of two young children. “Some of course have no choice due to employment issues, and have to send them back. For the others, we offer virtual ways to interact with providers to raise their comfort level. And we encourage providers to make things fun when they can.”
For example, Chang says, to make a car drop-off less frightening for a toddler, some of the care providers in the network have taken to building a small maze with stations. One is for a visual inspection, another for a fever check, and at each station the child receives a stamp in a booklet, turning the chore into game.
Such an approach can help, given that many parents are worried about youngsters for whom a preschool might be the first time the child is away from family members for the day.
“For the most part, parents have been very understanding of not being allowed inside and the various health checks we need to do,” says Carol Hibbs, CEO of the YMCA-YWCA of Marshalltown in Iowa.
Like many facilities, her day care sanitizes rooms each evening, requires frequent hand washing and stresses social distancing. The biggest challenge, she says, is simply trying to encourage young kids to act less like the young kids they are.
“We understand that kids as young as 3 really have a desire to be close to their friends when they see them, so we’re trying to balance that need with our new reality,” Hibbs says.
That balance works for Alecia Young, who since mid-May has been sending her daughter Tinley, 3, to the Marshalltown YWCA.
“She is a bit timid as it is; she’s a homebody,” says Alecia, who along with her husband leaves the house each day for work, she as a credit union employee and he as an internet technician. “But we talked to her, told her there was a sickness and she would see people wearing a mask. So she got used to it. She was used to being taught hygiene there, so she’s adjusting like this is the normal thing to do.”
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Parents balance needs with concern
USA TODAY reached out to a range of parents across the country, and most expressed a desire to send their toddlers to school as long as safety was a priority and children could enjoy a modified pre-K experience.
“My son Oliver, who’s 4, already knows the teachers, so I think he’ll be OK even if things are different now and we can’t walk him in,” says Jennifer Raymond of Saint Johns, Florida, a state that has seen a huge leap in COVID-19 cases lately. “The big uptick does worry us, but so far his school seems to have that under control.”
For Raymond, day care is a must as she and her husband, who also have a daughter Lily, 6, are busy with jobs in retail and IT, respectively.
“Not going to work is not an option for us,” she says.
The same goes for Lejuan Haggins of El Paso, Texas. Haggins, an Army veteran, works as a delivery driver while his wife is still in school, so they rely on day care services for their boys, 6 and 2, provided to veterans by the local YWCA, part of the national YWCA network that serves 2.3 million people in 45 states.
“The younger one, he had to adjust to it all at first, but now he just goes right in,” Haggins says. “We feel it’s a good asset for him, teaching him motor skills and how to interact with others. As for safety, I sense the YWCA is being very careful. And when the boys get home, we wash their clothes and put them in the shower. In the end, we don’t have a choice. We need the help.”
Sylvia Acosta, CEO of YWCA El Paso Del Norte Region, suggests that a properly run day care center should be a haven for parents.
“A well-prepared facility may well be the safest place a child can be right now,” Acosta says. “Everywhere else, from stores to barbecues, none of us can control when it comes to exposure to the virus. But here at our facility, we can have control over our environment.”
As with many decisions related to our coronavirus moment, experts say parents caught in this dilemma need to assess their own comfort with risk and balance that with everything from their child’s development needs to their own employment demands.
“Just like weighing the risks and benefits of K-12, parents need to figure out if pre-K is a good idea for them and their family,” says Susan Hedges, director of quality assessment at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which accredits facilities around the world.
Hedges says parents should ask their local facility detailed questions about their virus protocols, while recognizing that they also are part of the effort to keep everyone healthy.
“In normal times, we’ve all sent a young child with a slight fever to school simply because we have our own day to get started,” she says. “But now there can’t be any of that; this is deadly serious. Everyone has a role to play.”
And those roles in fact can be practiced at home so as to minimize the jarring impact on youngsters of being greeted by an adult wearing a mask and wielding a handheld digital thermometer, says Katherine Connor, assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and medical director at The Rales Health Center at KIPP Baltimore, a charter school network.
“For preschool age kids, a big part of the school experience is learning new routines,” Connor says. “Masks, face shield and thermometers can be scary, and parents and preschool staff can work together to normalize them.”
Socialization often trumps virus
Lynn Parks, a medical worker with sons ages 2 and 3, says her colleagues recently have masked up and come to her car with a thermometer just to get the boys accustomed to that new routine.
While the kids seem to be adapting well, Parks remains conflicted.
“I’m eager to get them around people who aren’t just us, but I am struggling to make the best decision for everyone,” says Parks, of Burlington, Massachusetts, whose day care, Kiddie Academy, offers the ability to check in on classroom activities through cameras. “I’m weighing the social interaction they’ll get with that risk of COVID-19 exposure for them and our older family members.”
Parks’ sister-in-law Sarah Benedict of Sherborn, Massachusetts, has three children, ages 6, 4 and 6 months. While the older kids are familiar with their schools, Benedict also is concerned that next year’s scholastic experience will leave a lot to be desired.
“The whole point of preschool really is socialization, so with masks and social distancing in classrooms you wonder what might be lost,” Benedict says. “Interacting with others at this age is more important than academics, so missing out on it is a concern.”
This week, a group of scientists and educators with the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine weighed in on this very topic. Their report recommended that young children and those with special needs attend school in person if possible due to the shortcomings of online learning for these groups.
But as much as young children indeed do benefit for the socialization provided by day care and preschool settings, it’s a mistake to think they will be irreparably harmed by missing out temporarily, says San Francisco-based psychologist Madeline Levine, whose books include “Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World.”
“Kids that young, ages 2, 3 and 4, are perfectly happy at home as long as parents can make them feel safe and secure,” says Levine, grandmother to a 2 year old. “You can teach socialization and sharing in other ways, especially if they have a sibling. Is it optimal? Probably not. But I don’t think kids are going to be damaged by not going to preschool for a year.”
Levine adds that if parents do opt for a preschool experience this year, err on the side on one that offers a measure of predictability.
“Kids need and want routine,” she says. “So maybe go two days a week and ramp up, as opposed to starting with five only to find suddenly there’s no school because a case has broken out.”
For Christie Parsons, a management consultant based in Menlo Park, California, just south of San Francisco, sending her three boys – ages 9, 6 and 2 – back to school this fall comes down to “a matter of trust.”
In addition to being impressed by the measures being taken by care providers, which included sending parents a video of teachers reading a story with and without masks so children could get familiar with the new look, Parsons has been encouraged by reports on school reopenings in Europe and Asia.
Aided by masks and social distancing, educators have found that transmission rates remain low among younger demographics. Doctors writing in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, noted that children rarely transmit COVID-19 to adults. Other doctors say kids are usually asymptomatic but can spread coronavirus to adults.
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“All told, our risk portfolio suggests this is something we can handle,” Parsons says. “We cringe, of course, thinking of the risks our youngest could be exposed to, but in the end, we feel it’s worth it, so he doesn’t skip a beat on things like learning to take turns and work with peers. Those aren’t things you can learn online.”
Mortgage industry expert Stephanie Caldwell and her husband, a plumber, have kept their almost 3-year-old daughter at Casey’s Daycare in Riverside, California.
“We wanted to keep as much normalcy for her as possible in these trying times,” says Caldwell, who was encouraged that her WeeCare-sourced facility used the usual list of safety protocols such as regularly cleaning, hand washing and social distancing. “What gave us peace of mind is our child is interacting with the same children every day and that is really the only place she goes.”
Beyond the benefits of their toddler getting to be with her friends, the Caldwells appreciate that by sending her to day care, she is learning good coronavirus-era safety habits in case the crisis lingers.
“At this point, the only reason I would foresee us pulling her out of day care is if my husband or myself lost one of our jobs,” Caldwell says. “Aside from that, we feel confident knowing she is in great hands, when not in ours.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 day care: Parents struggle with masks, distancing at school