As some Massachusetts businesses slowly reopen, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the plan for child care facilities.
"Families think child care is opening on Monday, but we're not, because we can't," said Dawn O'Neil, a home day care provider based in Ashley Falls. "We can't get certain cleaning supplies we need."
On Saturday, Gov. Charlie Baker is expected to decide when Massachusetts will move to phase two of of the state's reopening plan.
"We know that businesses are eager to prepare for reopening and families are looking for guidance on services like child care and summer camps," Baker said in a Wednesday news conference.
While designated emergency child care centers are open, full-service early childhood education and care centers, preschools and home day cares are must remain shut until June 29, but staff are now permitted to enter their sites to prepare to reopen.
Each site must submit a reopening plan to the state before nonemergency sites can start accepting children. Cleaning supplies, masks, and hundred-dollar forehead scanning thermometers are just some of the new expenses centers are expecting to incur, especially as it remains unclear what state funding will be available and to whom it will be allocated.
Baker issued executive orders on Monday with guidelines to support a second wave of reopenings to support the commonwealth's industry and economy. That same day, the state Department of Early Education and Care issued a 32-page document on the "minimum requirements for health and safety," along with another six-page response to frequently asked questions, which Berkshire County child care center directors and workers have been poring over.
They say they are grateful to finally have guidance from the state, but the new guidelines yield new questions and concerns.
"I must've read it at least two to three times, top to bottom. I'm afraid I'm going to miss something," said Carrie Dupuis, an assistant child care director for Berkshire County Head Start, during a regular Wednesday morning virtual Zoom call for local child care leaders. Her agency interacts with more than 300 children and families across six sites, from Northern to Southern Berkshire.
To teach, feed, comfort and care for those children through social distancing, temperature checks, masking, frequent hand-washing and other required health and safety measures will be "hard to figure out," Dupuis said, "but we're going to do it."
Despite dozens of pages of guidance, there are still dozens more unanswered questions, challenges and concerns.
Tammy LaValley, director of child care for Berkshire County Head Start's Johnson School program, said that when the guidance was issued, "My phone start blowing up." It was her staff members, feeling concerned, confused and upset. She organized a group call.
"I just let them vent," she said. "But after a half-hour, I had to say, 'OK, we're a team. We can do this. Johnson strong.' "
She asked each staff member to go through the document and highlight any particular questions or concerns to better focus on specific issues that will need to be addressed.
"You have to empathize with them," LaValley said, especially with the concerns of health and safety, including the mental and behavioral health issues that have begun to show among stressed communities. "They're scared for themselves, they're scared for their children, they're scared for their families," she said.
Nerve-wracking new norms
Among the biggest concerns of local childhood education and care directors are relating to costs, cuts and quality of care.
The issue of cost has to do not only with the new costs of supplies, but also the reduced capacity under the new guidelines. Group sizes "must be restricted to a maximum of 10 children, with a maximum of 12 individuals including children and staff in each room." These children must remain with the same group each day while in care, and not be combined with other groups, whether at recess or for a lesson.
This new guidance also conflicts with the current guidelines for designated emergency child care sites that were allowed to open with a capacity for 20 children.
For Kidzone Child Care and Educational Center Executive Director Susan Robert, that means her school-age program, which could include up to 93 children at any given time, will be reduced to a maximum capacity of 20 kids. Other directors and child care providers also worry what will happen to children if they can't allow all of their families to come back. They also struggle with how to decide who can come back and who they'll have to say "no" to.
Then there's the fact that operating with fewer children means less income, whether it's from full-paying families or through state and federal subsidy reimbursements.
"I'll struggle just trying to pay the rent, let alone the teachers," Robert said.
But perhaps the biggest concern of all, for centers, day cares and families alike, is how the guidelines will impact the quality of care their children will receive.
The cheerful, playful environments that children, teachers and families are used to will have to be altered under the new guidelines. Surfaces will be washed constantly. Plush toys are now a no-no, as are games with hand-holding, and the family-style serving of snacks.
Local center directors are discussing how to safely make their environments and learning practices fun and engaging and positive for children, but it's not going to be the same as it was just before the centers and schools across the commonwealth closed in March.
The guidelines have spurred Darci Hess, a Pittsfield parent with two children under the age of 5, and others to write to the Governor's Office and the Department of Early Education and Care. She says she and fellow parents are concerned not only about health risks but how the new guidelines set up child care centers to become much more "sterile" environments.
Hess and providers fear the social emotional turmoil of some children being adversely affected by families' experience of job loss and stress due to the pandemic, as well as adjusting to new, stringent rules.
As reported by The Washington Post, Hess also fears the effects on women from the child care industry being upended, from mothers being forced to choose between staying home to continue caring for children to day care providers losing their livelihoods because of reduced capacity and income.
"The fact is that with day cares reopening, employers are expecting their workforce to return to the workplace at a reasonable rate," she writes. "Parents are facing the difficult decision: what matters more ... our careers or our children?"
Jenn Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.