State education leaders openly acknowledge that following the new health requirements will not be easy for childcare providers.
"This is not childcare as we knew it," said Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care during a board meeting Tuesday afternoon. "This is a very different kind of operation."
This week, the department released a new set of regulations that childcare providers must meet if they want to provide non-emergency child care services during the pandemic.
The document is more than 30 pages long and covers everything from food safety (only pre-packaged meals will be allowed) to diapering, which now requires that staff don an oversized shirt, goggles and gloves to complete. Only plastic toys will be allowed, and shared toys like water tables are off limits. There are also new mask and cleaning protocols.
But perhaps the most costly of the new requirements are the ratios. Before the coronavirus, center-based providers could enroll as many as 20 preschool aged kids in one class, as long as two adults were watching over them. Under the new requirements they can't go above 10 kids and two adults — or 12 per room.
For some child care providers, this is going to be a huge hit financially. Many of these businesses run on thin margins, so reducing the number of kids that can attend, especially if their parents pay full tuition, is a big hit.
"The state is putting us in a bad position, as educators as business owners," said Jessica Teixeira, owner of the Imagination Station Early Learning Center in Revere. "It’s like we’re losing, losing, losing. I don’t know how they expect businesses like us to stay open."
She believes that some of the new requirements are unrealistic and unfair, like asking kids as young as two to wear face masks throughout the day. She also questioned where the funding would come from for all of the new sanitation materials, especially the extra personal protective equipment.
Digesting the new requirements, Teixeira isn't sure yet if she'll be able to reopen.
"There’s so much to deal with and to decide on," she said. "It’s hard."
For home child care providers, the new ratio requirements will be less of an issue. About two thirds of them are licensed for eight children or fewer.
"What's going to be hit the most are established home day care providers who have been at this the longest," said Brian Swartz, the CEO of NeighborSchools, a company that helps home day care providers navigate through the state licensing process.
He added that while some parts of the requirement document include a lot of detail, he's frustrated with how sparse it is on things like how a provider will get permission to reopen.
"There isn't a [state] plan for how someone will present their plan to the [Department of Early Education and Care] and how the EEC will approve this plan and how that's going to happen by Phase II," he said, mentioning the second part of Gov. Charlie Baker's reopening plan for the commonwealth, which is supposed to begin as early as Monday.
Commissioner Aigner-Treworgy told board members Tuesday that the department will be providing additional information and resources in the coming days and weeks.
"We don't want to be a burden that stands in the way," she said. "So we're providing as much clarity as we can."
Aigner-Treworgy added that the goal is to be as efficient as possible with the approval process, while balancing the need to do due diligence when it comes to maintaining health and safety.
According to a survey the agency released last month, 63% of responding child care agencies said they were prepared to reopen this summer. Half of group care providers believed they could return with enrollments at pre-coronavirus levels.
Still state officials acknowledge that there is a lot of uncertainty about what the future will look like.
"I do think it's going to be a moving target with the question of supply and demand," said board chair Nonie Lesaux. "And I think it will expand and contract over the next six to eight months."
In order to get a clearer picture of the market, state officials are planning to release a provider survey soon to find out whether owners are planning to reopen under the new safety requirements, what their capacity will be and what their plans are for offering spaces to families who receive state subsidies.
There are also plans to offer grants to providers who serve families receiving state subsidies to cover fixed costs like rent for the first two months to help mitigate the expected decreases in enrollment revenue.