The Pandemic Is In A New Phase But Child Care Centers Still Struggling
After all the struggles of the past year and a half, Randy Lum and his four-year-old son Miles were eagerly awaiting the first day at Miles’ new preschool last week. But their excitement didn’t last long.
After his first day, Miles came down with a runny nose and had to stay home for three days. And he needed a negative COVID test in order to be allowed back.
The test was negative and Miles was back on Friday. But on Saturday, they got more bad news.
“We got an email saying one of the kids in his class tested positive, and that kid was at school on Friday, so Miles was exposed,” Lum said. “Now we’re home for two weeks.”
So Lum and his wife, Abigail, are back to a reality they thought they’d moved past—trying to work from home while taking care of Miles and his younger sister Emilia. Though Emilia wasn’t exposed, they’re keeping her home for two weeks as well.
“My wife is upstairs working and I’m downstairs, down here with the devils,” Lum said with a laugh.
Last month, the California Department of Public Health published new COVID guidance for child care centers.
Under the new rules, children and staff must still wear masks. But providers can increase their class sizes to pre-COVID levels, and can mix groups together and have teachers move between groups when necessary.
But even with the loosening of rules, many San Diego day cares still look a lot like they did in 2020. Kids 12 and under are unvaccinated, so everyone ages two and up are wearing masks, and providers are still being cautious about increasing class sizes and mixing groups of kids.
They are finding themselves faced with a difficult balancing act. They need to bring back a semblance of normalcy both for the sake of the families they serve and to lessen the financial toll on their businesses. But they can’t do it so quickly that parents become uncomfortable, especially now that the delta variant is causing case numbers to surge.
“Because child care providers are still trying to operate in a way that keeps COVID from transmitting at child care centers, many are choosing to serve fewer kids, or stay in stable groups, and all of that reduces the total amount of revenue they can pull in,” said Laura Kohn, a early education and childcare adviser at Mission Driven Finance. “They were already operating at very thin margins.”
Going out of business
More than 500 child care businesses closed during 2020, according to a report from the San Diego YMCA. The vast majority couldn’t afford to stay open under the strict rules regarding class sizes and limits on staff mixing among different groups.
“Many of the most financially vulnerable providers are already out of business, so hopefully the ones remaining will be able to sort things out,” Kohn said. “Working parents can’t take another reduction in the existing level of child care.”
Sally Chenoweth, the owner of Discovery Preschool in Oceanside, said each day is a balancing act.
“We’re trying to decide what our meet in the middle will be, we want to do what’s safest, but we also need to be financially supporting the need to quadruple staffing ratios to accommodate not mixing classes and not letting teachers rotate,” she said.
So far, Chenoweth has maintained balance with slightly smaller classes so she’s at 70% capacity, but allowing groups to mix in the morning and evening so she can extend her hours.
“We’re kind of expecting that with the way cases are going, there’s a chance the county will come back and say we need to go back to stable groups,” she said. “We could have called our entire wait list and let everyone in, but we’re so worried we’ll go back in the other direction, and then what would we do, tell everyone they had to go back home again?”
Chenoweth said she, like many providers, are struggling to hire new staff. She’s also had to pass on costs to parents--she normally raises rates by 3% a year, but this year raised them by 8%.
Holly Weber, the owner of Magic Hours Childrens’ Center in Mira Mesa, said she’s at 60% capacity now and is stuck there because she can’t hire more qualified staff to increase class sizes. She’s also worried that the rising COVID case numbers could mean new restrictions on class sizes could come at any time.
“We’re bracing for our next sector meeting, because they could suggest we go back to reduced numbers,” she said.
Even the glimmer of hope on the horizon--a COVID vaccine authorized for kids 2 and up possibly by late fall or early winter—doesn’t make Weber feel much better. She has no idea how many parents will be willing to vaccinate their kids.
“I’m expecting restrictions will be held over our head well into 2022,” Weber said.
Masks have almost eliminated the normal illnesses that usually course through daycare centers, Weber said, and she plans to use them well into the future during cold and flu season. But she’s worried about the developmental impacts that could emerge because kids and teachers are wearing masks all the time.
“We have two-year-olds who have never seen the faces of their caregivers,” she said. “That scares me. We’re seeing children coming in with developmental delays, and then their teachers are wearing masks, so they’re not able to read facial cues. Prolonged mask wearing by both children and their teachers can be detrimental to children’s speech and language development.”
Like Weber, UC San Diego epidemiologist Rebecca Fielding-Miller predicts that mask rules for child care centers will be in place through this year and into next.
“It’s going to be a rough Fall for everyone, kids and adults,” she said.
In 2020, there were 22 outbreaks at child care centers in San Diego County—10 times less than at senior living facilities, according to records obtained by KPBS in November 2020. But some pediatricians worry the delta variant could both spread more easily among children and make them sicker than previous variants have.
Fielding-Miller takes issue with discussions of herd immunity and protection that comes when 70 or 75% of the eligible population is vaccinated, because that leaves out children who are not yet eligible.
“That really forgets about the enormous cohort of people who do not have protection, and one of the cohorts of people put at risk is children,” she said. “It’s as if we’re thinking that if you’re not eligible for the vaccine, the virus will not go after you.”
For parents like Lum, that means still not having reliable childcare. He knows the year ahead will likely involve staying home from work when a kid is sick—even with just a runny nose. And that puts new weight on his day-to-day decisions.
“Having kids at home who are not vaccinated, I’m going to wear a mask like nothing has changed, because nothing has changed for them,” Lum said.