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State’s emergency child-care centers kept COVID-19 in check. Here’s how.

Only nine of the 550 emergency child-care centers reported more than a single case of COVID-19 from March through May, a feat that could provide lessons for a state still reopening.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As schools and day-care centers were shuttered last spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus, hundreds of emergency child-care centers stayed open to serve the children of essential workers, even amid concerns that little was known about the risk of infection and transmission among children.

Now, newly released state data show that few cases of coronavirus spread within those centers, a feat that experts attribute to careful adherence to health and safety protocols, and that could provide insight to schools, day cares, and learning pods that are reopening their doors to children.

Only nine of the 550 emergency child-care centers reported more than a single case of COVID-19 from March through May, according to data provided by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care.

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To date, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health believes there are only a few cases in which COVID-19 transmission occurred within child-care centers.

“Because COVID numbers remain relatively low in Massachusetts, the risk of COVID transmission in any setting, including child-care settings, exists but remains low,” said public health spokeswoman Ann Scales.

At centers that did see the virus last spring, some program directors think they were able to contain it by swiftly closing classrooms and recommending 14-day quarantines for teachers and children who had been in close contact. And they believe adherence to the state’s rigorous health and sanitizing standards helped.

“The risk of exposure in here I don’t think is greater than you going to the supermarket,” said Rony Adams, director of early learning for the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, whose emergency child-care program at Head Start at the Common reported two adult cases of COVID-19.

“Following all those broader [safety guidelines] has kept us to this point as safe as possible,” Adams said.

The data provide the first glimpse of Massachusetts child-care centers' experience with the coronavirus and more fodder for parents hungry for information about safety. The newly released records date back to the spring, when most of the state was in lockdown and many of those in emergency care were the children of frontline workers at elevated risk of exposure.

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Data newly released by the Department of Public Health since regular child-care centers reopened on June 22 show continued low numbers but pockets of concern. (The Boston Globe is still appealing to the state Supervisor of Records for complete detailed records on those data.)

At the Guild of St. Agnes Salem Covenant site in Worcester, for instance, three children and four teachers tested positive this summer, said deputy director Sharon Fileccia MacDonald. Although the outbreak was contained, the situation illustrated how much disruption even a few cases can cause: Six teachers, 19 children, and a bus driver and monitor all had to quarantine for 14 days, as did a nearby family child-care center where one of the COVID-19 positive teachers sent her child, who also contracted the virus. No one else tested positive at the family child-care center, however, MacDonald said.

During the emergency child-care program in the spring, however, the highest number of COVID-19 cases reported at any emergency child-care program was five. Three early-learning teachers tested positive at the YMCA Tower Square in Springfield, in addition to a teacher’s family member. Also testing positive was the day-care director who had helped in the early-learning room, noted Dexter Johnson, president and chief executive of the YMCA of Greater Springfield.

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“The experience made it clear to us that the guidelines that were in place needed to extend beyond the classroom,” Johnson said in an e-mail. “We had to apply those same guidelines to interaction between staff in offices, at the coffee shop, or in the parking lot.”

All the families in the affected classroom were notified and told to stay out for 14 days, he said.

In those early months, some centers took more drastic action than required as they worked to contain the virus.

When an educator at Nurtury Horadan Way in Roxbury warned of a potential exposure outside school, the center notified parents, had all teachers tested, and shut down for 24 hours.

“We weren’t required to close our center, but we did so just out of an abundance of care and concern,” said Jaye Smith, chief advancement officer for Nurtury, which operates six centers and two family child-care programs in the area. When tests came back positive for two more educators in a different classroom, the center shut down again. Both classrooms quarantined for 14 days, she said.

At the YMCA Kids Stop in West Roxbury, one student and a parent tested positive in April, said James Morton, president and chief executive of the YMCA of Greater Boston.

“If you think about the fact that we provided 130 hours of care to the children of essential workers, those are pretty good outcomes in terms of mitigating the exposure to COVID-19,” said Morton, who noted the Y is building off the experience to open learning pods for Boston Public Schools students this fall.

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At Head Start at the Common in Lawrence, a 14-day quarantine was imposed even though it was unclear whether the teacher had been contagious when last in the classroom, said Adams. Only one other teacher tested positive, said Adams.

She attributes the containment largely to strict safety protocols: Children and staff must remain in their classrooms. Floaters no longer fill in for teachers’ breaks in multiple rooms. Teachers wear masks, face shields or goggles, scrubs, and gloves, and children have been surprisingly compliant about mask wearing, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing, Adams said.

Children are less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19, but they do catch and spread the virus, research has shown. Little has been published to date on the risks of transmission in child-care settings, often considered petri dishes of other types of contagion. A study of Rhode Island child-care centers revealed minimal transmission. Another, published this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that children who caught the coronavirus at day-care centers and a day camp did indeed bring the virus home to their relatives.

Dr. Kristin L. Moffitt, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, said that taken together with other studies, “the limited data available so far do suggest that transmission in day-care centers is low, especially when risk mitigation practices are followed and closely adhered to.”

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But while classroom closures and quarantines may minimize transmission within centers, she noted, contact tracing is still necessary to confirm whether students and staff are bringing the virus home to others. Children often show no symptoms, for example, and their infections might be missed, without testing.

“It will be critical that data from day-care centers continue to be tracked, ideally in combination with follow-up contact tracing and testing,” to confirm the effectiveness of the safety protocols, she said.

The Globe previously reported that 64 cases of COVID-19 emerged at 47 different emergency child-care programs, making transmission seem unlikely. It was not until this month, however — after the Globe twice appealed to the state Supervisor of Records — that the state’s early-education department provided the number of cases within individual child-care centers, making it possible to track potential transmission.

The department has also posted the number of COVID-19 cases reported by child-care centers between June and August, though those data are shown only by region.

In September, the state Department of Public Health also began posting child-care COVID-19 data. However, family child-care programs are not named, in an effort to protect privacy, making it impossible to discern whether the virus spread within those in-home programs.


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