Experts Predict How The Coronavirus Could Permanently Change Child Care

From "de-densification" to social distancing contracts, big changes are here — and they could last for a while.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the way I cared for my children looked very different. I used to drop my elder kid off at school, then I’d walk my younger one to the family-run day care where he spent eight hours a day, five days a week.

Of course, for the past two-plus months, both of my boys have been home with me all the time. My husband and I squabble over who watches them while the other tries to cram in some work, then we swap.

We’re grateful for the extra time together and that we have stayed healthy thus far, but like so many others, we do not think of this as a sustainable model. I have had actual dreams about being able to work a full day without simultaneously fetching snacks, changing diapers or breaking up brawls.

Experts caution, however, that even as much of the country starts to reopen, child care will look strikingly different than it did prior to COVID-19. It will be a long time before things are back to what we’re used to — if ever.

“There’s no question child care is going to look different,” Sally Tannen, director of the community center 92Y’s Parenting Center, told HuffPost.

Here are five big-picture predictions about how child care in this country will be transformed.

There’s going to be a huge focus on “de-densification.”

Day cares (both those that have remained open and those that will reopen) will follow various protocols and guidelines set forth by organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as by state and local health officials. And all of those recommendations are very much still being formulated, Tannen said.

“Each day care and program has to follow those guidelines, then they individually have to say: ‘What do we do on top of [those guidelines] to make sure our community feels safe?’” Tannen said. “It’s going to be a process and it’s going to take time.”

One major area of focus? “De-densification” — basically, finding ways to make sure that even in bustling day cares, kids aren’t piled on top of each other all day. That’s a significant challenge for many reasons, not least of which is that social distancing is an impossible concept for a toddler to grasp in any kind of meaningful way.

“One of the biggest challenges for younger kids is that they want to reach out and touch each other,” said Ellen Birnbaum, director of early childhood programs for 92Y. “How do you tell a child they can’t do that? There are so many layers to this.” Similar discussions are happening about schools, whenever they reopen.

Despite that, providers are looking at several concrete strategies, like staggered drop-offs, keeping groups of children in separate rooms and spacing out kids’ sleep spaces during nap time — ideally, at least six feet apart. The goal will be creating as much distance among kiddos in a setting where that’s pretty damn tough.

“After 9/11, child care centers around the country really stepped up their security protocols — many of which remain in place decades later. Similarly, many measures day cares put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 could be here to stay.”

There will be even stricter rules for cleanliness.

Tannen and Birnbaum noted that after 9/11, child care centers around the country really stepped up their security protocols — many of which remain in place decades later. Similarly, they believe many measures day cares put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 could be here to stay.

For example, the CDC says that day cares should check all kids’ temperatures at drop-off while maintaining social distance (meaning staff members hand a thermometer to a parent to take a reading and watch). The CDC has called for “intensified” cleaning and disinfecting. And day care centers will step up the number of times kids wash their hands throughout the day.

“Parents and children alike will notice that their child care center looks remarkably different than when they were last there,” echoed Stephen Kramer, CEO of national child care provider Bright Horizons. “Some of the differences include: all teachers and staff will wear masks in [our] centers; child care staff should be doing health checks on children and parents who arrive at the center each day; both teachers and children engage in frequent handwashing; staff are routinely cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and toys; [and] only single-serve snacks will be served to children.”

COVID-19 has transformed child care in America — and those changes could be with us for quite some time.
d3sign via Getty Images
COVID-19 has transformed child care in America — and those changes could be with us for quite some time.

Many child care options will simply be gone.

Experts have been warning for months that the coronavirus pandemic will wipe out day cares and preschools around the country. A recent analysis from the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress suggests that some 4.5 million child care slots are at risk of disappearing nationwide as child care providers struggle to stay afloat in the face of sweeping closures.

“It’s an amplification of a problem that was already an issue,” said Nina Perez, early learning national director for the advocacy organization MomsRising, referring to the fact that many child care providers were already operating on extremely thin margins. “What I anticipate is that [COVID-19] was like putting gasoline on a fire.”

Perez said day care closures will put many families in a tough spot. Some people will be able to find another child care provider, although that is no easy task under even the best of circumstances. She believes others won’t.

“We’re seeing folks who already have to leave the workforce, because being responsible for full-time child care is incredibly challenging,” Perez said.

More families could turn to one-on-one care.

There aren’t numbers anyone can look to at this point to see if families are opting out of group care settings and looking instead to hire nannies or babysitters, but several of the experts interviewed for this story said it is a possibility.

“Families that have traditionally relied on daycare, summer camps, and/or before and after-school programs are now reconsidering group childcare settings and opting for one-on-one or one family/one nanny care,” said Michelle LaRowe, editor-in-chief of Nanny Magazine.

Of course, for many parents, that will not be an option. On average, nannies and babysitters cost more than day cares do.

Parents and nannies are going to have to reset expectations.

Many parents who used to work in an office setting are currently working from home — an arrangement that could continue indefinitely in many cases. That is one major change that families and their children’s babysitters will have to navigate together, according to LaRowe.

“Traditionally, there has been a large pool of nannies who will not consider positions with an at-home parent who are now having to consider these positions,” she said. “Nannies are having to shift their job ideals to adapt to the changing market.” For many, that also means having conversations about what role, if any, a child’s babysitter might play in remote education.

But that’s just a part of it. COVID-19 agreements have become commonplace, LaRowe said, and she anticipates that many of the topics covered will continue to be an issue for some time.

“Parents and nannies are having conversations about what happens if one party becomes exposed to COVID-19,” she said, “what the expectations are around social distancing, what they will do if one party becomes sick, what duties and responsibilities may change if the children are home from school for an extended period of time starting in the fall, and how sick leave and time off will be handled.”

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