MIDDLETON — The preschoolers at Magical Beginnings River Academy no longer share pencils — they have personal boxes now. Their “Toy Story” figurines and nap mats are sanitized with ultraviolet light and ozone in a refrigerator-sized cabinet. When their teacher, Jenna Grenier, asks them questions — what a farmer does, or what it feels like to milk a cow — she speaks from behind a floral face mask.
The dozen youngsters, arrayed on a carpet before her, seem unfazed and respond as any group of preschoolers might — with intermittent curiosity and distraction. Then they cheerfully recite one of their two new songs on hand-washing.
Though a pandemic ended the school year and shut most of the state’s 9,000 child care programs 10 weeks ago, this day-care center was one of roughly 500 that stayed open for the children of essential workers with no other alternatives — supermarket cashiers, scientists working on vaccine research, nurses and ambulance drivers, and select others. Centers like this one, where operators are figuring out how to keep small children safe and engaged during the COVID-19 era, could well become the model for day-care centers across the state when they are all eventually allowed to reopen.
“We’ve been successful,” said Linda Hassapis, who converted three of her six Magical Beginnings locations into emergency child-care centers.
“Our kids in all three locations have been healthy."
But uncertainties abound — both about the continued risk of exposure to a deadly virus and about the financial feasibility of operating under the safeguards that regulators are expected to impose when centers reopen.
Governor Charlie Baker ordered child care closed through June 29 — a date some day-care owners and businesses have asked him to better coordinate with the phased reopening of other workplaces that already has begun.
But a spokeswoman for the Department of Early Education and Care said the date has not changed and discussions are still underway with the Department of Public Health and the administration’s Command Center on the new health and safety protocols child-care operators will be expected to satisfy.
As a result, providers remain in the dark on exactly what they need to do before reopening. Will new partitions need to be built to separate children into smaller groups? Will they have to buy costly new personal protective equipment? How dramatically will regulators cut back the ratios that dictate how many teachers are needed in each room?
In states that have already reopened child care, class sizes are being limited. Massachusetts regulators — also expected to slash class sizes — have even been considering excluding infants from child-care centers when they initially reopen. Those changes would devastate the business model, which is dependent on attendance fees. And child-care providers have yet to receive relief from the $45 million federal package the state received for child care weeks ago.
They’re also confused by a swirl of regulatory contradictions.
During the height of the pandemic, the state let emergency child-care centers operate with greater numbers than ever: 20 children, of all different ages, from infants to adolescents, could gather in a single program. The state has since recommended but not mandated a maximum of 10, a limit that is anticipated to continue.
“Why is it," Hassapis asked, "when you need the emergency care, anything can go? But then when we reopen our doors, we’re going to have stringent restrictions?”
Thirty-three states let child-care providers decide whether to remain open during the pandemic, according to a state-by-state analysis compiled by the Hunt Institute, a nonprofit affiliate of the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy. Many of those states called for reduced group sizes to limit children’s contacts.
The picture varied across New England: Connecticut deemed child-care centers essential and encouraged them to remain open; Maine and New Hampshire let providers decide; and in Rhode Island and Vermont, where child-care facilities closed, they are expected to reopen Monday.
Child-care operators say they already are accustomed to frequent cleanings and strict hygiene. Magical Beginnings was the rare center that had a large device to sanitize toys even before the pandemic.
During the recent weeks of emergency service, Magical Beginnings removed toys that couldn’t be cleaned and had the center disinfected three times a day. Hassapis brought in more tables to provide extra space at snack time; rearranged cribs and installed plexiglass between them to create a sanitary buffer; and removed the toddlers’ sensory table, where tactile but messy offerings — think cornmeal — could not be easily cleaned.
The center is now closed to parents, who drop children off in the foyer, one family at a time, along with a checklist attesting to their child’s health that morning. The checklist, developed by the state, asks whether the child has a temperature over 100.4 degrees or any low-grade fever; a cough; shortness of breath; sore throat; any other signs of illness; and contact over the past 14 days with anyone with a respiratory illness or a COVID-19 diagnosis. If the answer to any question is “yes,” the child can’t enter the building.
When children enter, they are whisked to their classroom for a temperature check — which could end the day right there — and the first of many hand-washing cycles. Children are kept in separate groups that are no longer merged during the day. Those who do get sick must now stay out until they have been symptom-free for 48 hours, and a parent must pick up a sick child within 45 minutes.
But only the teachers — not the children — are required to wear masks. And kids, being kids, are likely to be touchy, close-talking, and lacking in spatial awareness; social distancing is not part of the toddler playbook. In Grenier’s classroom, they plopped down next to one another in worrisome proximity, bobbing and moving all the while. One dark-eyed girl leaned in to a standing Hassapis for an impromptu hug of her leg — something that’s hard to prevent, she acknowledged.
It remains to be seen how eager parents — who are accustomed to seeing lesser viruses ricochet through classrooms — will be to return their children to group care.
Wenham mother Jenna Rose, a school counselor who is working from home, said she hopes to get her 3- and 4-year-old daughters back to Magical Beginnings soon, since she is concerned about the socialization they are missing.
“I think a structure and a routine is one of the most important things a kiddo can have,” she said. “If we’re able to get them back when state guidelines say we can, I think we’re going to go for it.”
But she and fellow Magical Beginnings mother Kristin Maher, of Georgetown, also acknowledged the fear of the unknown, even as they expressed full confidence in the center.
“It’s more just the fear of reentering the world and putting my children at risk,” said Maher. “That’s innate in you as parents.”
Even the routine temperature screenings at day-care centers — just as in offices and other gathering points — may prove to be inadequate to keep the coronavirus out. Not all those infected develop fevers and children could be asymptomatic or presymptomatic. Children can get and carry the virus, though they are thought to be at lesser risk and certainly are at lesser risk of serious illness or complications from it. (Infants may have a slightly greater risk than older children.)
Maher said she would let public health experts be her guide and try not to live in fear.
“I am trying hard to believe in the process," she said. "At some point, we have to reenter the world.”