As teachers and parents agonize over final plans to return to school, the state’s early education leaders are sounding the alarm over care for younger children: Only 72 percent of the spots available in Massachusetts child-care centers before the pandemic are expected to be available in September, the Department of Early Education revealed this week.
Child-care programs were permitted to reopen in late June, but only 5,910 of the state’s 8,224 child-care providers had submitted plans to do so by late July, Commissioner Samantha L. Aigner-Treworgy said this week. Another 163 child-care centers have decided to shut down permanently after being shuttered for the pandemic, eliminating 2,855 seats — 1.3 percent of the state’s capacity. Many other providers are still trying to decide whether it makes sense to reopen in September, as they evaluate community-level coronavirus data and wait for school superintendents to finalize their plans for K-12 education, due to the state on Friday.
As a result, the commissioner told the members of the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care this week, child-care capacity may be diminished this fall, particularly in certain regions. Metro Boston expects to lose one-third of its child-care capacity and Western Massachusetts, 35 percent.
The numbers rattled some members of the board, which includes Education Secretary James Peyser, Governor Charlie Baker’s top education adviser. Several board members called for urgent leadership and coordination across agencies and within communities.
“There seems to be an assumption that community agencies and child-care facilities are going to be available,” said member Joan Wasser Gish at a Tuesday meeting of the board. “My concern is that that assumption is not tethered to realities on the ground and in the absence of much more concerted coordination — not only at the state level but also on the local level — that things for families have a real risk for falling apart.”
Board Chairman Nonie K. Lesaux added: “It is clear — it’s so very clear — that the lens now has to turn to children and families and supervision and safety and mitigating a whole lot of learning loss. ... We’re going to have to as a state think now — really hard — about eyes on kids.”
Even since they were permitted to reopen in late June, child-care providers have been struggling — especially at centers where new restrictions have limited classroom numbers and potential revenue. Though the federal government approved modest relief for child-care programs as far back as March, Massachusetts caregivers still haven’t received any. The funding was held up by the state budget process, and the department reserved it for centers that serve poor and vulnerable children.
And some centers have been trying to open rooms for kindergarten or school-age children to accommodate families with children of varying ages, whose school year may still be in peril. But the department has not permitted it. For instance, an owner of two child-care facilities handling babies through preschoolers said the families she serves have another 11 school-age children between them. If those children’s schools take them back only two days a week, their parents will need to find care for them on the other days, too. And if that’s unworkable — and a parent has to stay home with all the children — that jeopardizes not only the family’s income but that of seven teachers and administrators waiting to care for the youngest at day care.
Board member Mary E. Walachy said the data were inspiring her to start reaching out to community leaders and educators in such places as Springfield to prepare parents for the loss of options. Many families have children at a range of ages — from babies to late elementary school — and with schools’ plans still vague, they may soon have to scramble to coordinate care, after-school care, and even educational help to return to work.
“It’s really going to require more than what this agency can do,” added Gish. “The need is vast and it’s urgent.”
Even as the board fielded revealing data on child-care centers, however, the commissioner withheld other information on COVID cases that are appearing in these centers. The Globe reported on Tuesday that the department has refused to divulge data on cases of coronavirus at the emergency child-care centers that remained open from March through June. The department revealed a total of 64 cases during that time but would not break down where they occurred, which could show whether infections spread within particular centers.
The Globe is appealing the department’s decision to the state Supervisor of Records while seeking more recent data on COVID cases reported by child-care centers. Several child-care providers said they, too, have been requesting recent data on coronavirus cases as they try to assess their risk of reopening but they have been ignored by the state.
“I want to have evidence. I want to be data-driven,” said Britta Riser, director of the Sudbury Cooperative Preschool, which hopes to reopen Sept. 14. “If the health and safety measures are working, then my passion and my dedication is to my families and my children. I will show up for work and care for them and love them. But I don’t know if it’s working — and that to me is beyond negligent.”
She called it “unconscionable” that the state won’t release data that could be instructive to coronavirus management within child-care centers and said that many of her peers have been requesting it, individually or on behalf of groups.
Martha Christenson Lees, director of a child-care center in Northampton, said she has twice unsuccessfully requested the information through the web page the department set up to elicit feedback on reopening.
Early educator Daniel Gonzalez said he requested data via a public records request in June and has received no response. On Tuesday, he launched an online petition that quickly attracted 500 signatures demanding the release of data about coronavirus cases in child-care centers.
The petition notes that the information is required by the supplemental budget that Governor Charlie Baker recently signed.
“We know that the data is being collected but is not being released,” the petition says. “This places children, families, teachers, and providers at risk.”
“They’ve been pushing us to reopen,” said Gonzalez, who noted that everyone would like to return to normalcy. “We just want the data so that we know.”
But worries abound. One child-care provider who spoke on the condition of anonymity had to close down for 14 days after several staff members tested positive for coronavirus, despite all the health precautions she instituted. No children have tested positive, she noted.
“I’m not doing anything wrong. I don’t even let the parents come inside,” she said. “I don’t know what other precautions I could have even taken.”