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Child care centers in limbo as reopening begins

Hung Pham (left) and Tram Nguyen carried their children after picking them up from the YMCA on Oak Street West, one of several emergency child care programs operating in Greater Boston.
Hung Pham (left) and Tram Nguyen carried their children after picking them up from the YMCA on Oak Street West, one of several emergency child care programs operating in Greater Boston.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The phased-in reopening of Massachusetts businesses that Governor Charlie Baker announced Monday left child-care centers in limbo, officially unable to reopen until June 29.

However, the emergency child-care programs that opened in March for the children of essential workers will now be open to the children of all those returning to work in the first phase of reopening, said Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the Department of Early Education and Care. Those emergency child-care programs are operating free of charge to families, she said.

“The emergency childcare system has been very effective, and has the ability to handle more children as businesses begin a phased reopening,” Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, Commissioner of Early Education and Care, said in a statement.

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The Department of Public Health is working with her department to develop “additional health and safety standards to make sure we’re ready to fully reopen childcare and camps,” she noted.

The emergency programs, which now have slots for 10,000 children, could ultimately be expanded to accommodate even more children, according to the governor’s plan. However, few families have taken advantage of them to date. Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito noted at a press conference Monday that the programs are only about 35 percent full.

Parents have expressed some reservation about tapping the emergency resources. When the early education advocacy group Strategies for Children surveyed families who use child care in April about why they weren’t using the emergency programs, 33 percent said they had health concerns about sending a child to group care. Sixty percent said they were relying on someone else in the household to provide child care.

The state is still encouraging families to use options outside of group settings, whenever possible. The emergency child-care programs are intended as a last resort for those with no other alternatives.

Most child-care centers remain closed, however, and their providers are increasingly frustrated by the uncertainty. Some of them had been urging the governor to align their reopening with that of area businesses, whose workers rely on them. Though the governor’s plan staggers the business reopenings by sector — with each phase contingent upon the success of the prior one — he gave no dates for a coordinated reopening of any child-care centers. He said he expects day camps to open in the second phase of the reopening and residential camps in the third phase, however.

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Child-care providers are “in a state of unease. They want clarity,” said Amy O’Leary, director of the Early Education for All campaign at Strategies for Children.

Senate President Karen E. Spilka said she will continue to push the Baker administration for more details on child care, including how many emergency spots will be available immediately, how families will be chosen for those spots, and how accessible the facilities will be to public transportation or in different regions.

“This crisis has brought into sharp relief the need for families to have flexible, reliable child care options,” she said in a statement. “We need to be creative in our thinking about how we build a sustainable child care system in Massachusetts long-term, but parents, families, and providers still need clarity on how child care will function as we go back to work.”

Business leaders have also been advocating for the government to better coordinate the reopening of child-care centers with that of other workplaces.

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“Child care should be treated not as another industry to open up, but as a critical element of the infrastructure necessary for the economy to reopen. The thinking about it needed to shift,” said James E. Rooney, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

The closure of most child-care programs and schools has upended family life and made a return to work uncertain for those eager to restart the economy. And the coronavirus crisis has created demand even among families that previously relied on in-home care by relatives. “How do you put grandparents in jeopardy?” asked Rooney, noting that older people, considered some of the most vulnerable to infection with the virus, have been discouraged from baby-sitting.

He said he hopes the state will be able to scale programs based on its experience with emergency providers.

“There must be lessons learned from operating the emergency child care,” he said, “as to how you operate in this environment.”

The centers that remained open in recent weeks to accommodate the children of front-line workers had to meet new safety protocols.

“We’re checking children’s temperatures twice a day. We’re screening all staff and all children who come in every morning,” noted James Morton, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston. “We’re wiping down and sanitizing all commonly used surfaces, cleaning all spaces that serve children every single day. Our screening process requires folks to answer how they’ve been feeling over the course of several days and whether they traveled outside of New England. We’re being very, very thoughtful and careful with the help of the children we serve.”

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The YMCA of Greater Boston has been operating 12 emergency child-care centers, with its 2,400 spots only about 35 percent filled, he said. But as more children of nonessential workers attend, he said, the Y is big enough to pivot to accommodate them.

“We’ve got a whole complement of professional, trained staff ready to step in to early education as additional children are being served,” he said. “We think that’s something we’ll be able to do quite easily.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert