At least 64 cases of coronavirus have been reported at Massachusetts emergency child care centers over the past three months, forcing temporary closures and quarantines at some of the programs set up to care for children of essential workers, state officials said this week.
The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care said that 32 people with reported infections were staff, and 32 were children or members of their families. The Baker administration would not specify how many were children.
Early Education spokeswoman Colleen Quinn also would not say how many emergency child care centers had been temporarily shut down to quarantine children and staff. Commissioner Samantha L. Aigner-Treworgy told child care providers this week that there have been “many” cases of exposures and quarantines.
“We’ve had multiple situations in center-based providers when someone who went from classroom to classroom has been exposed and the entire center had to be quarantined, including families,” the commissioner said during an online town hall meeting with child care owners and teachers Wednesday evening.
Since the 64 infections occurred at 47 different child care programs and most were isolated cases, it would not seem to indicate a large spread had occurred. In addition, many of those using the emergency care centers have been front-line workers who have more exposure to those with coronavirus, and it remains unclear if they or their children were infected.
However, at least nine emergency child care programs had more than one case; Quinn declined to identify which ones.
Sixty-four cases would represent a low rate of exposure within emergency care programs, which were caring for 4,800 children as of Wednesday. But the tally comes at a stressful moment, as parents who are beginning to return to work are grappling with whether to return their children to group care settings. Some families are already learning that, to meet stringent new health and safety requirements imposed since the pandemic, their child care centers are raising their rates and cutting their hours.
The Billerica day care that Shannon Fahey-Merrifield’s children attend won’t reopen until the end of August. Still, she has to pay $660 by Tuesday to reserve spots for the fall.
That $660 deposit represents a single week’s tuition for her two children — $88 a week more than she was paying before the pandemic.
“It’s already so much money,” said Fahey-Merrifield, a probation officer. “You have to pay anyway when your child is sick or you go on vacation.”
Now she is worried about the possibility that — even if her children stay healthy — their care could be interrupted for a quarantine.
“Once one person gets it, I’m assuming everyone at a given day care would have to quarantine, right?” she asked. “The whole day care is going to close for I’m assuming two weeks. What if there’s another case a week later? Now it has to shut down again for two weeks?”
The commissioner’s remarks this week appear to be the first public acknowledgement of coronavirus cases in the 550 child care centers that were allowed to stay open for emergency care in recent months. In the early weeks, only about 2,500 children were attending the emergency programs, which could accommodate 10,000. The state later expanded the invitation to nonessential workers.
Quinn noted that the department of early education is not responsible for tracking any positive COVID-19 cases.
“Emergency child care centers are required to report any positive COVID-19 cases to their local boards of health, as they are the experts charged with investigating, contact tracing, and aggregating information on exposure and testing, who then report that information to the Department of Public Health,” she said.
In her remarks Wednesday, though, Aigner-Treworgy said she has been working with some of the centers that reported infections.
“There have been many exposures,” Aigner-Treworgy said.
“There have been many positive test cases, and with that, the biggest impact of this has been quarantine," she said.
The news could add to the uncertainty many day care workers and parents feel as they consider returning to their workplaces amid a deadly pandemic that, while lessening in its toll, shows no signs of disappearing. In recent weeks, child care providers, teachers, and regulators have hotly debated the health and safety requirements that the department introduced to try to reopen child care centers safely.
The department worked with public health experts to develop health and safety requirements “to balance the child development and safety needs of children and staff at child care centers during the pandemic,” Quinn said.
Child care providers pushed back saying the new regulations would be cost-prohibitive and impractical, sometimes halving their enrollment and their revenue, while forcing them to keep toddlers 6 feet apart. Meanwhile, parents and teachers began petitioning for caution, urging regulators not to ease the standards too much.
“We’re nervous about the situation. We’re nervous about opening and what it looks like,” said Carolyn Breton, who works at an early learning center in Chelmsford and is among those pushing for tighter health standards.
One of the main concerns was that centers need teachers’ aides — or “floaters” — to step into a classroom so that a teacher can take a break. The initial regulations were so strict that day care owners worried they would not be able to bring a director or an aide into a classroom even to relieve a teacher to go to the bathroom. The department eased up on that language somewhat, but providers have been requesting even more flexibility. The commissioner’s remarks suggested that those floaters proved to be a problem in emergency care.
Meanwhile, family providers and child care owners remain confused about when and how they can reopen.
Governor Charlie Baker had ordered child care centers closed through June 29. Then, on June 1, he said they could restart in the second phase of the state’s economic reopening, which began the following week, after submitting plans showing how they would satisfy Minimum Requirements for Health and Safety. The department revised those standards once already, and regulators are still not capable of accepting child care centers’ plans online for review.
The commissioner said on Thursday that she now hopes to accept plans by the weekend. However, the department was still revising one of the documents — a legal form that child care providers must submit. And that document is only available in English.
“I didn’t sign it yet because I’m not sure exactly my responsibility,” said Llanet Montoya, a family child care provider in Worcester.
Montoya praised the commissioner for listening to feedback but said she’s overwhelmed by the deluge of documents she needs to fill out. And she’s uncertain if she is ready to reopen.
“I feel like everybody’s learning at the same time, and they don’t have many answers either,” she said. “We have the support, but I feel that the deadlines are here and they don’t know what to do and we don’t know what to do.”