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'Parents are scared': Day cares reopen, but uncertainty lingers

NBC News logo NBC News 7/12/2020 Elizabeth Chuck
a person walking down a street next to a fence: Image: Arcadia Children's Daycare in the Bronx (Angus Mordant / for NBC News) © Provided by NBC News Image: Arcadia Children's Daycare in the Bronx (Angus Mordant / for NBC News)

Inside Arcadia Children’s Daycare in the Bronx, New York, bright rubber circles have been placed on the floor to teach toddlers about social distancing. Doorknobs, sinks and surfaces have been thoroughly disinfected. Items that may be more likely to transmit the coronavirus, such as dress-up clothes and puppets, have been stashed away in storage.

Arcadia is one of approximately 3,000 city-regulated child care programs across New York City that have been shuttered for more than three months due to the pandemic. Last Tuesday, New York City’s Board of Health voted to allow day care centers to reopen as of this Monday, making the city among the last places in the country to permit child care for young children to resume.

For some parents, the news that day cares can operate again couldn’t come soon enough. But for others, sending their child back now feels too risky, too costly or too complicated. As a result, day cares are scrambling to open their doors with expensive new health protocols, while contending with the possibility of having fewer parents pay tuition.

The regulations they face vary by state. In New York, day care facilities must have no more than 15 children per room; staff members must wear masks; daily health screenings must be performed; and there must be frequent cleaning and disinfection of toys and the facility, among other requirements.

“We are completely ready. But I’m concerned that kids just won’t be coming in,” Ruben Zagagi, Arcadia’s executive director, said. “Parents are scared of bringing their kids in. Many are still at home. They don’t need us — they don’t need a day care.”

Nonetheless, Arcadia, which serves children ages 2 through 6, all of whom qualify for government-subsidized child care due to their family’s income levels or are part of the city’s universal prekindergarten program that is free to all students, is set to welcome kids back Monday. A couple of parents have already said they will not be sending their children, and a handful of others have said they are uncertain if they will, Arcadia’s educational director, Sue Sussman, said.

a man standing in front of a store: Image: Arcadia Children's Daycare (Angus Mordant / for NBC NEws) © Angus Mordant Image: Arcadia Children's Daycare (Angus Mordant / for NBC NEws)

Reluctance to send children back to day care without a vaccine or a reliable treatment yet for the coronavirus, especially as the pandemic continues to cost millions of Americans their jobs, extends across the country. In May, 63 percent of the 2,000 families surveyed by the online child care marketplace Care.com said they were uncomfortable placing their children in day care as states reopen, and nearly half said they were more concerned about the cost of child care now than they were before the pandemic.

Maji Hailemariam, a Flint, Michigan, mental health epidemiologist and an assistant professor at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, will not be sending her 14-month-old back when his day care reopens at the end of next month. She and her husband are working from home and have decided they would rather juggle child care and work than risk their son getting exposed.

“I will keep my child for as long as it takes until I feel safe enough,” she said. “You’re not dealing with one family or one group. It’s your kid, and sets of families that are sending their kids, and their lives, and the teachers’ — when you bring all that into play, it’s hard.”

Not all parents have the luxury to choose to keep their kids home, though, with wealthy and white parents more likely to have job flexibility or the means to hire a nanny.

And others feel the benefits of day care outweigh the risks. Maggie Hart, of Manhattan, will be sending her 3-year-old, Archie, back to his preschool when it reopens in several weeks. She said she feels it is important for him to return: He has started having some anxiety when he leaves their apartment, and he has been daydreaming of elaborate plans that he wants to do “when the germs are gone,” ranging from having a big party to going to the zoo, she said.

“I’m ready for him to see his friends,” Hart, who works in advertising, said. Plus, she added, “I’m not sure I’m the best to help Archie learn all the things he needs to learn.”

Costly protocols, razor-thin margins

For reasons that the medical community does not yet fully understand, children appear less likely to get severely infected by the virus, and also may be less likely to spread the infection.

The success of the 300 New York City sites that ran care for children of essential workers with oversight from the Department of Education or the Department of Health while all other child care centers shut down may provide hope to parents considering a return to day care now: They took care of thousands of children when New York was getting the hardest hit, and saw no clusters or outbreaks of the coronavirus, according to Katie O’Hanlon, a New York City Department of Education spokesperson.

Still, day care centers are not invincible. In Texas, more than 1,300 staff and children at child care facilities across the state have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

But many experts are in favor of children of all ages returning to school, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, which last month said it “strongly advocates” having students physically present in school.

Dr. Kathryn Edwards, an infectious diseases specialist and professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, cautioned that more information was needed about Texas’ cases before drawing conclusions.

“I think that with proper precautions, it is safe,” she said of day care. “Adults are much more adept at giving the virus to children, so I think there’s a greater risk from the adults.”

Experts say the new cleaning and safety regulations are an added cost for an industry that already runs on an extremely thin profit margin, and comes as they are grappling with months of lost tuition, since many day cares have been closed since mid-March.

a close up of a door: Image: Arcadia Children's Daycare in the Bronx (Angus Mordant / for NBC News) © Angus Mordant Image: Arcadia Children's Daycare in the Bronx (Angus Mordant / for NBC News)

“You’re putting child care centers in a very precarious situation absent federal or state aid. You might be in a position where you see the closure of many of these centers down the line,” said Radha Mohan, the executive director of Early Care and Education Consortium, which represents about 6,500 centers belonging to large, multistate child care providers.

Among the consortium’s members, which include chains such as Bright Horizons and KinderCare, Mohan said those that have already reopened are seeing an added cost of $400 to $500 a week just to pay for personal protective equipment. But increasing the price of tuition to cover the expenses may not be a viable solution.

“A lot of providers recognize you need to balance cost and profitability against parents’ ability to actually pay for this service, especially post-pandemic. We’re walking into a situation where so many people were furloughed for months or they took pay cuts, so in terms of affordability, a lot of families are now in a worse position than they were before to pay for the cost of child care,” she said.

There has been some aid. In New York, the state set aside $65 million in federal funds to help day cares and preschools reopen. But early childhood educators say that’s not enough, a refrain echoed at the K-12 level as well, where public schools are attempting to safely reopen at the same time that their budgets have been decimated.

At Arcadia in the Bronx, the directors are steeling themselves for higher costs and lower revenue. The school’s pre-kindergarten program, which begins in September, typically has a wait list; this year, only half of the 42 slots have been claimed so far, they said.

Image: Arcadia Children's Daycare in the Bronx (Angus Mordant / for NBC News) © Angus Mordant Image: Arcadia Children's Daycare in the Bronx (Angus Mordant / for NBC News)

Whatever happens, Sussman, the educational director, is looking forward to welcoming children Monday. She has kept in touch with Arcadia’s oldest students through remote learning and has been in awe of their ability to keep their spirits up.

“These kids have become resilient. They’re still trying to enjoy their lives. They’re playing, reading a book, dancing,” Sussman said. “This is the way it’s supposed to be.”

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