Providing safe child care during COVID-19 — a life and death issue
Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) recently introduced a $50 billion child care bailout to “stabilize the child care system, keep providers in business, and ensure parents are able to go back to work when it is safe to do so.” The bailout would provide funding to allow programs to close while continuing to pay staff wages. These are critical resources, as the alternatives have encouraged programs to remain open and staff to keep working, or else risk losing their livelihoods.
As the senators note, the COVID-19 emergency “has pushed child care providers to the absolute brink: forced to either close their doors to stop the spread of the virus, or stay open…” This plan would bring much needed protection to the child care infrastructure and its educators — who earn, on average, about $11 an hour.
The bailout also calls for the provision of emergency child care to frontline and essential workers. Our hope is that as these details get worked out, leaders throughout the nation will consider the safest ways to provide emergency care to children of essential workers and other vulnerable children who have no other options.
As of this writing, just one state, Rhode Island, has suspended all group care, recommending one healthy caregiver consistently provide services to a frontline worker in that worker’s home. Another 15 states allow and even encourage programs to operate if they are providing services to children of essential workers; this seems to be the prevailing strategy that others are considering. The strategy is a shortsighted policy that could well prove fatal. In fact, when a child tested positive at a center in Colorado, the center was allowed to open.
As much as child care providers want to be of service, many who are operating now are terrified for their lives.
We are risking community spread by allowing group child care to remain open. Children have the least risk of severe illness from COVID-19, but they can be carriers without exhibiting any symptoms. Emergency policies are based on faulty assumptions about young children’s behavior, including a recent directive from the state of California on how child care centers should enforce social distancing. They include finding “creative ways to use yarn for children to create their own [6-foot] space.”
Center for Disease Control recommendations for group care are not grounded in the daily realities of child care and provide a false sense of security. The latest CDC supplemental guidance for child care programs fails to take into account young children’s behavior and the conditions of group care. One CDC guideline indicates that a teacher who holds and comforts a crying child should change both the child’s clothes and their own shirt afterwards due to exposure, which assumes teachers comfort one child at a time, infrequently. The CDC also recommends that programs use face masks, eye protection and a different set of gloves to perform temperature checks on each child upon arrival — despite the scarcity of such supplies. Guidelines fail to recognize that educators, no matter how much hand washing and sanitizing they do, cannot distance themselves from the children who rely on their close contact.
One healthy caregiver who consistently serves one family at home is likely a safer way to address the critical child care needs of essential workers, especially those who work with COVID-19 patients. One-on-one child care does have logistical, staffing and safety considerations that face any workers providing service in a private home; resolving these issues will require innovation as well as child care expertise. For vulnerable children who cannot be safely cared for in their home or who are homeless, local authorities should arrange for group care with restricted numbers of children.
We urge the CDC, the National Association of Governors and Congress to protect child care educators. Whether they are providing emergency care or sidelined by the pandemic, this workforce needs greater protection, higher pay and more respect. We have outlined strategies for establishing relief amounts, along with other recommendations grounded in data about the early care and education workforce, the realities of child behavior and the provision of child care.
The approach we outline will protect lives and livelihoods now and allow programs to reopen with relative ease, ready to support all workers when we emerge from this crisis.
Lea Austin is the director, and Marcy Whitebook is director emerita at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley.