Though more than 1 million Massachusetts students will stay home from school for the next three weeks to control the spread of the coronavirus, the state has left open child-care centers, which serve the youngest children who require the most hands-on care and who are notorious for spreading germs.
That has some day-care teachers concerned about their continued vulnerability. More than 18,000 have signed an online petition urging the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care to mandate the closure of child-care centers, which remain open at the discretion of the providers.
“When you’re working with toddlers, you’re working in close contact. They want hugs,” said Daniel Gonzalez, the early educator who launched the petition. “And unfortunately, that’s going to spread the virus.”
But state officials are wrestling with how to manage a public health crisis that requires the intense collaboration of researchers, medical professionals, and emergency workers to defeat.
“Child care is a critical resource for parents, families, businesses, and first responders,” Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy wrote in a message to providers on Sunday. “As long as families continue to work, children need safe places to go.”
Children are not considered to be an at-risk population for the coronavirus, Aigner-Treworgy noted in her message. However, they are believed to be carriers of Covid-19. That’s concerning to those who care for young children, who are not known for their hygiene and are often prolific spreaders of other types of disease.
Kate DiPaolo, who works with infants at a KinderCare in Tewksbury, rattled off a list of conditions that have recently raced through her center — two strands of the flu, a stomach bug, hand-foot-and-mouth disease, something that’s causing ear infections, and random colds.
“I feel like we’re just sitting ducks right now,” said DiPaolo, 26.
“In the field that we work in, we can’t practice social distancing,” DiPaolo added. “Kids can’t help but cough on us or wipe their noses on us. They put toys in their mouth cause that’s appropriate developmentally. There’s not much we can do to protect ourselves right now."
The Department of Early Education and Care reassured providers in a Sunday advisory that if they shut down, the state would continue reimbursing them for the care of low-income children — regardless of whether the closure was mandated by the state. But providers are skeptical and wish that the department would just shut them down.
“That would ensure more safety and assurance that we would get paid if that happened,” Edita Mendoza, 49, a family day-care provider said through an interpreter.
Both in-home day-care providers like her and teachers at child-care centers are grappling with how to accommodate the parents of essential workers without continuing to spread the virus that the rest of the populace is kept home to avoid.
“Our providers are faced with the same overwhelming decisions that a lot of parents are: Do I keep working and risk the health of my family or close my business and lose my income?” said Megan Piccirillo, communications director for SEIU 509, which represents in-home child-care providers.
With up to 20 parents and children coming and going from their homes every day, Piccirillo said, some family child-care workers are working overtime on sanitation and hygiene. But they would also like the same protections being offered to teachers in the K-12 school system and at universities, she said.
“They should be able to close as well for the health and safety of their own families,” she said.
Some centers — seeing the necessity of their care more than ever — are trying to stick it out. The Watertown-based Bright Horizons chain of child-care centers is staying open.
“Bright Horizons realizes that our centers serve as an important part of the infrastructure to support people whose work is critical to addressing this crisis, and they are relying on us to support them,” the company said in a statement. “We have heard from hospitals, health care systems, and government leaders looking for assurance that we will continue to be there to support the needs of those on the front lines of stemming this pandemic.”
And others are brainstorming to continue to meet demand. Some are offering to take more children to accommodate the children of medical professionals, Piccirillo said.
The same is happening in communities where those rendered temporarily homebound by the work closures are offering up their services as baby sitters to people who need them, said Maya Norton, a Brookline mother. “We have a proportionately higher percentage of medical workers here, right near all the big Boston hospitals,” she said. “It’s something we’re working on where people are really looking out for each other.”
Katie Johnston of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.