Fewer kids, less interaction and masks on small children. When daycare centers re-open at the end of this month, it will be under a set of new rules.
Inside the Wollaston Child Care Center in Quincy, decorations from March are still on the wall — marking the last time toddlers and preschoolers have ambled their way through these classrooms. When they return on June 29, they will look different. Patti Wilson, the center's administrative director, is assessing all the changes that need to be made under Massachusetts' new safety requirements for reopening. As she walks through a pre-k classroom, she places chairs at opposite ends of a table.
“We’ll have fewer chairs at each table and perhaps encourage children to have their own buckets of material to keep them more separated, like art supplies. Instead of looking like a bin of large community crayons that everyone reaches into, each child will have their own collection of art supplies, their glues, scissors,” Wilson said.
That's just one of many changes that will be implemented per guidelines issued by the state's Department of Early Education and Care. Mandatory will be more hand-washing, and of course, masks for kids over the age of two. Holding stuffed animals and playing dress-up will be off limits since they can’t be easily sanitized. But how do you get toddlers to practice social distancing? Diversionary tactics.
“Our best bet is going to be to try to attract them to disperse to different areas of the classroom for the staff members," Wilson said. "Honestly, I can’t say realistically they’re never going to touch each other. We can’t put them in bubbles."
Co-mingling won’t be allowed, which means children will have to stay in the same room all day. The same goes for staff, so even though Wilson runs the daycare center, she won’t be able to visit the classrooms she oversees. It also means outside programming, wherein visitors come and perform, going from room to room, will need to be put on hold.
“I think for us that’s going to be one of the challenging aspects of the new regulations,” she said.
But the biggest challenge for daycare operators may be financial. Under the state’s reopening plan, child care centers can only allow a maximum of 10 children per classroom and must have 2 teachers. Before COVID-19, these classrooms could hold twice that many.
With more staff, fewer kids but more supplies, daycare operators are in a frenzy trying to figure out how to stay afloat financially.
More than 34,000 daycare operators have signed a change.org petition charging the new rules will cripple their businesses. Signers also say the state guidelines are “next to impossible to follow properly” and will “instill fear and anxiety in children.”
Wilson said although she’s concerned about the long-term financial sustainability of the daycare center, she is hopeful that the state will provide financial help. Her nonprofit daycare center already receives some subsidies through Community Care For Kids, but many private-pay child care operators don’t have that lifeline.
Kimberly Higgins, founder and director of Preschool Social Academy in Winchester, said the child care system was broken before the pandemic and the new guidelines will only push private facilities over the edge.
“So now to put all these demands on top of this, you’re going to put a lot of providers out (of business) and we won't be here for you when it’s time to open," Higgins said. We’re not paying our teachers enough. And what is it going to look like when we have to provide PPE? Are we going to take what little funds we’re able to pay our teachers and slice those? That doesn’t seem fair. There needs to be subsidies for child care.”
At the federal level, legislation has been pushed to fund child care for the short- and long-term. The Heroes Act, which the Democratic-led House passed, will provide some immediate relief for child care providers. The Senate has yet to act. Meanwhile, Democratic Representative Katherine Clark of Melrose is pushing for Child Care is Essential Act, which would appropriate an additional $50 billion to child care operations.
“That will really be the type of investment that we need and that recognizes that child care is infrastructure,” Clark said. “I think one of the things we have to be aware of is that this is an industry that is overwhelmingly run by women and that women of color are disproportionately represented to their proportion of the population in general. And that is part of why child care has not been funded in the ways that we look at funding other parts of our infrastructure. And we simply can't afford to continue along with that sort of cultural paradigm. This is essential to our economy.”
Given all the changes, Wilson says it’s not yet clear how many kids will return to Wollaston Child Care Center. But Titilayo Westover’s son will definitely be one of them.
“We are ready to return. We will be here the first day it opens,” Westover said.
Westover, who’s a nurse, has been juggling care for her nearly two-year-old son Kayo with her husband Anthony, who’s been working from home in Quincy. She says the benefits of being back at daycare for her family will outweigh the adjustments to the new changes.
“He understands that he’s not seeing his friends. He’s understanding that his whole routine is not normal, so returning will provide a sense of normalcy for him," Westover said. "I understand the fear that a lot of families have. And I think we just have to really trust in ourselves and trust in what we’re doing and trust in the people around us in trying to get things back to normal. ”
A new normal where life at daycare, like every place else, is sure to look different.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of money that the Child Care is Essential Act would appropriate to child care operations.