For many parents, it’s been a long three months without child care because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Greg Abbott allowed day cares to open up again for nonessential workers on May 18, but many of them have been slow to open and parents have been slow to take their children back.
About 42% of the local child care facilities that receive state subsidies to serve kids in foster care or families who are unemployed or have low incomes are open right now, says Cathy McHorse, the vice president of the Success By 6 initiative for the United Way for Greater Austin.
Of those that are open, many have been open this whole time and serving essential workers but are now able to add more children to their care.
McHorse says the safest place for a child is with a nurturing adult, whether that is in a day care center, at a neighbor’s or relative’s house or at home.
As more companies are returning to the office, parents might be weighing continuing to work from home or heading back to the office. If they stay at home, will the kids still be at home with them, or is it time start day care or day camps as more centers reopen? If they do go back to the office, will the kids go to day care or day camps or will they find a trusted adult to care for them?
"They have to weigh the risks with the reality of their financial needs as a family," McHorse says. "If they must return to work, what is the safest option for their child?"
Kids also are craving being with other kids, she says. "Beginning at age 3, the peer group becomes really important. Kids need to be in interaction with other kids," she says. "Families need to take that into account when balancing the risks. There’s no simple answer for anyone at this time."
Many other families don’t have options. Parents will be back in the office and their kids will be in day care or camps because there is no one else to care for them.
"Child care can be safe, but parents should ask questions of their child care provider," McHorse says. "How are they implementing recommendations?"
Those centers that have stayed open to help families of essential workers have been able to do so with minimal transmission of the coronavirus, McHorse says.
Those centers followed strict guidelines, many of which are still recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the governor’s task force to reopen Texas.
Many of those recommendations are no longer are enforceable as Texas has reduced restrictions, though, and each child care center is weighing the cost of implementing the recommendations versus the health risks.
If you are looking at sending your child back to day care or to a day camp, McHorse and guidelines recommend parents check for these safety measures:
• Parents and guardians not allowed into the centers, but do drop-off and pickups outside.
• Children and staff checked for symptoms and temperatures before they enter the building.
• Employees wear masks or cloth face coverings. Parents can prepare kids for seeing adults wearing them by wearing them themselves.
• Children stay in smaller groups and not interacting with other groups of children.
• Children stay with the same teacher all day, but with the possibility of one floater who can give that teacher a break and who moves in a limited way between classes.
• Children and staff isolated and sent home if they become ill and required to stay away until at least three days have passed after they had any symptoms.
• Children or staff who come in contact with someone with a positive test should be quarantine for 14 days.
• Meals no longer served family-style and served in the classroom rather than a cafeteria.
• Enhanced cleaning protocols.
• Enhanced hand-washing measures.
• Encouraging social distancing in a realistic way. McHorse worries that efforts to social distance kids, like putting kids in hula hoops or separating them by traffic cones, is unrealistic and not good for them socially.
While the Texas Health and Human Services Commission repealed requirements like the screenings, avoiding family meals, and no parents or guardians inside a center last week, McHorse says those measures are still recommended and something parents should ask their centers to continue to do.
Families might be wondering why they are continuing to pay tuition if their centers still aren’t open. The reality is that centers are still having to pay rent and utilities as well as many of them are trying to continue to pay some staff.
McHorse’s fear is that many of the child care centers will be facing closing in coming months as families continue to keep kids at home, as money from payroll protection loans and assistance to centers that were accepting subsidies goes away, and as staff don’t return because of their own health risks.
"A number of our child care programs are going to close and are not going to reopen," she says.