State officials have eased some of the guidelines for reopening child-care centers, in-home programs, and summer camps after fielding complaints that their regulations would be ruinous to small businesses and unworkable with small children.
The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care has decided to encourage — but not mandate — the use of masks for children older then 2 and to eliminate a requirement that every child undergo a temperature check at the entrance before participating. Staff would still need to wear a mask whenever 6 feet of distancing is not possible.
The department also dropped one of the most controversial and costly requirements it had built into the new regulations: requiring an extra teacher in every preschool room.
But even as they address central concerns raised by day- care operators struggling to stay afloat, state regulators are hearing contradictory concerns from workers at those facilities worried about their own health and safety.
“Clearly the department is signaling that they are listening, but they continue to try to balance the reality of the situation," said Amy O’Leary, director of Early Education for All, which advocates for early childhood programs and funding. “We’re seeing evidence that they’re just kind of back and forth.”
Indeed, no sooner did day-care owners express relief than the workers who had petitioned the state to close the centers in the first place urged caution.
“The field is not unified in its philosophy or belief system — just like the general public is not unified,” said O’Leary. She pointed to a New York Times article showing, even among epidemiologists, vast disparities in people’s comfort levels about when to return their children to camp, school, or group care.
State officials have been trying to thread that needle, heeding the concerns of business owners in a fragile industry — which is essential to restarting the rest of the economy — and the concerns of worried parents and teachers. Though Governor Charlie Baker gave camps and child-care centers the go-ahead to reopen, each must first present a plan for operating in the new landscape. The state just opened the process for submitting those plans this week.
The department also dropped a change to the teacher ratios that would have required two preschool teachers for every classroom of 10 children. Preschool rooms typically accommodate 20 children with two teachers — and their tuition disproportionately fuels a center’s budget, compared to the more labor-intensive infant and toddler rooms.
Child-care providers had complained that regulators were forcing them to keep their high staffing costs even as they halved their capacity. The revised regulations return the requirement to just one teacher for every 10 preschoolers, while noting that, “to the maximum extent possible, more than one adult is recommended.”
The initial regulations for reopening had also limited the total number of people who could be in a room at any one time — and who could come and go from a classroom throughout the day — in an effort to limit people’s contact with too many others. But providers complained that layering that requirement over existing teacher-student ratios would make it impossible to bring in an aide, even to give a teacher a bathroom break. The revised regulations do away with the total capacity limit, while still requesting that adults should not move between cohorts of children and should be dedicated to certain groups. However, they acknowledge that “programs can establish their own staffing patterns based on their own unique needs.”
The department is now encouraging providers to offer flexible hours and stagger their drop-off and pickup times. But that may be unrealistic for family providers, who often work alone in their own homes, caring for multiple children, said Jynai McDonald, family child-care coordinator for SEIU Local 509. “When you talk about things like staggered pickup and drop-off times, that’s really hard for a provider who’s used to working alone and not having an assistant,” she said. And, she noted, the new requirements for hygiene and safety will require providers to swiftly isolate a child who becomes sick from the rest of the group. “How do you do all of that and take care of all the other children without having someone else?” she asked.
Notably, staff are no longer going to be asked to take each child’s temperature before the start of the day, which would have required not only time but resources, as they changed gloves for each child admitted.
Early Education Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy said that the health advisory board of the administration’s Command Center recommended abandoning temperature checks.
“There was some feedback that it was an inconsistent health check for children,” she said, noting that there were too many “false positives and false negatives to make it accurate enough.” Others had noted that not everyone who gets the coronavirus gets a fever or presents with symptoms immediately.
Parents will still need to attest to their child’s health each day, answering whether the child has had a fever, chills, a cough, sore throat, difficulty breathing, headache, or other symptoms of coronavirus, including a loss of smell or taste and muscle aches. And they’ll need to say if the child has been in close contact with someone infected within the past 14 days. (Close contact is defined as being within 6 feet, for more than 10 minutes, with someone who has tested positive, while that person was symptomatic.)
Other advocates urged the state not to go any farther and suggested that child-care operators are pushing too hard for a return to normalcy.
“They’ve been trying to push for changes for financial reasons— which is understandable. They’re under a tight belt and we’ve been really suffering financially,” said Daniel Gonzalez, an early education consultant who has been advocating for day-care staff. Nonetheless, he said, safety should be the primary focus. “We don’t want them to relax the health and safety piece without the science behind it.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.