Child care providers are facing some new requirements to reopen this summer. On Monday afternoon Gov. Baker released detailed guidelines about how child care can operate safely.
The list of new regulations is daunting, especially if you compare it to pre-coronavirus times. There are new occupancy restrictions, no more than 10 pre-school and school-aged kids to a room. Providers must create a single point of entry for kids and stagger parent drop-offs. There’s also a detailed health screening, a mask and cleaning protocol, and restrictions on the number and types of toys. (No more shared sensory tables allowed.)
For emergency child care providers, rules like these have been the new normal since March. And many non-emergency operations are now looking back at that experience for insight on what to expect and how it will impact business.
"I jokingly say there is a lot of fun that is sucked out of this," said Pam Suprenant, the director of youth development at the YMCA of Central Massachusetts. She oversees the four child care programs in the Worcester-based association.
"It’s hard to tell a four year old that if they’re playing Connect 4, they can’t touch that marker," explained Suprenant. "You have to have Play-Doh for every kid, Legos for every kid, and sanitize them every night. It is a lot of stuff."
And it’s stressful, especially for the kids.
"Social distancing is so counterintuitive for us even as adults. For kids, it’s mind boggling," explained Heidi Kaufman, the education director at the Metrowest YMCA in Framingham. "Their entire lives, all they’ve been told is that you need to learn how to share and you need to get along with others."
For staff, there’s been an emotional toll. Alicia Jno-Baptiste is the owner of Wee Care J.P., an emergency provider in Jamaica Plain.
"There were panic attacks with teachers," recounted Jno-Baptiste. "Through it all, we've had to take some deep breaths and take a couple days off."
Jno-Baptiste is working with a skeleton crew right now. It’s just her and two other teachers. Nine other members of her staff have been furloughed.
Another challenge emergency care providers have faced is attendance. In May, only 65% of the available seats had not been filled. But demand varies widely across the state. Some are full and have a waiting list. Others, like Jno-Baptiste, are only at a quarter of capacity.
And no-shows are much more common right now if a relative is suddenly able to step in or the family has to be quarantined because of illness or possible exposure.
Attendance will be an even bigger question when non-emergency child care service can open back up. Most child care providers run on thin margins and rely on a specific number of students to stay afloat. But a lot of emergency providers say many of their families are hesitant to come back.
"I have some parents who say 'Oh, I’ll be right in there,'" said Jno-Baptiste. "But a majority are saying 'Oh, well, we might wait until September.'"
A lot of families are in limbo. About 30% of Massachusetts parents said they were unsure if they wanted to send their kids back to group care, according to a recent survey by the early education advocacy group Strategies for Children. Most families cited health and safety, but financial uncertainty was also a big factor.
"Parents are really going to drive demand and what the system will look like," said Amy O’Leary, the director of Early Education for All, a Strategies for Children campaign. She added that the pandemic could lead to large shifts across the child care market.
"Now we know that more parents will end up working remotely. What could that look like?" O'Leary asked. Parents may need care closer to home — or even in their homes — instead of near their workplaces.
But some advocates worry this disruption could also lead to a wave of closures, meaning there won’t be much of a child care system to go back to.
In the new guidance document, state officials acknowledge that meeting the new requirements might not be possible for every child care provider, meaning they'd have to remain closed.
"[The Department of Early Education and Care] is continuing to consider ways to support these critical providers as they prepare to reopen."
This segment aired on June 2, 2020.