I began looking after babies at age 8, when my sibling was born. I babysat through high school, worked in multiple day cares, and I’ve spent six years as a substitute preschool teacher. When I was laid off from the textile industry in the last recession, child care felt like a natural sidestep. Now in my 40s and laid off from a day care since mid-March, I dread the call requesting my return. It’s one thing if I can’t keep myself, or my own two children, safe from the germs I’m exposed to and bring home with me each day. It’s another if I can’t guarantee that intensified cleaning, smaller class sizes or more frequent heath checks can keep you and yours safe either.
Early childhood educators occupy a zone that’s part service, part education, and mostly private-sector. The work is hard and low-paying, typically $11 or less per hour. The bulk of care is provided by women, the majority of whom are Black in some states ― a group that’s already at higher risk for COVID-19. Every day they risk falling ill themselves or taking the virus home to their own families. Refusing to return out of fear for personal safety means losing unemployment benefits, and hazard pay is tough to come by.
There’s some debate over whether children are capable of spreading COVID-19, but any enclosed environment where people do a lot of talking in close quarters poses a risk for infection. Until we know more, it’s safest to assume that children are vectors. Ever tried social distancing with a toddler? Or had a small child pull at something on or around your face? They already grab at glasses, earrings, hair. I don’t think masks would be any different.
Ever tried social distancing with a toddler? Or had a small child pull at something on or around your face? They already grab at glasses, earrings, hair. I don’t think masks would be any different.
On an average day, pre-COVID, I was responsible for the care of five infants, 6 months in age and younger. In addition to the normal feedings and diaper changes, which was already enough to keep an infant teacher on her toes, new CDC guidance directs that we collect toys that have been in the children’s mouths and clean, rinse, sanitize, rinse again, then air-dry before returning to use. While I understand the necessity of this, I’m worried we’d have to ration toys or be out of stuff to play with by lunchtime. We cleaned the toys before, of course, but this is above and beyond. Guidelines also state that we change clothes every time a child gets bodily fluids on us. Think about how much fluid one baby produces, particularly one who’s teething. Imagine a center full of teachers changing their clothes every time they get sneezed on. I currently own two pairs of work pants.
Despite all of the new safety precautions, at least five centers that I know of in my home state of North Carolina had students or staff test positive for COVID-19 in May. My center never closed its doors back in March, but still met the same fate as many centers nationwide, with significant drops in class enrollment. I wasn’t needed anymore, so I’ve been biding my time at home with my own kids.
North Carolina initially just allowed the children of essential workers to attend day care, but as of May 22, all children are permitted. Once enrollment gets back to normal, I’ll likely be asked to return. I’ve been collecting unemployment, which didn’t kick in until May, but that stops if I’m called back (or opt to tell my employer no).
As the sole parent of my own children, I have to decide whether to risk my own health to return to a field that’s never paid workers what they’re really worth.
As the sole parent my children have left (their father died of a heart attack in March), I have to decide whether to risk my own life and health, possibly making them orphans in the process, to return to a field that’s never paid workers what they’re really worth. I don’t know where the child care industry goes from here, but with a turnover rate that was already 30%, it could lose the dedicated people it still has left, either to burnout, infection, fear, reduced enrollment or all the above.
If I do go back to work, of course I want to keep your children safe, but all the extra precautions can really do right now is give an illusion of safety, same as the copious temperature-taking. Extra cleaning can only minimize, not eliminate, the risk. If you do decide to bring your children to day care, because I realize that some families don’t have a choice, the staff will need your cooperation to keep everyone as safe as possible.
The new precautions may seem excessive and time-consuming. The morning drop-off process could take longer, due to temperature checks and health screenings. To limit the spread of germs, parents may be asked to stay in common areas and not be allowed to enter classrooms. Most importantly, anyone exhibiting symptoms (parents or children) needs to stay home, because otherwise you risk infecting everyone in your child’s classroom, teachers included, along with their loved ones by extension.
Every time a COVID-19 case pops up, centers must close for deep cleaning. Shutting down repeatedly affects everyone involved. In order for the economy to recover, we need safe, affordable, quality child care. Without it, essential workers can’t keep going to their jobs and women in particular can’t return to theirs.
It has been an absolute joy to love the children I watch, to help them learn and watch them grow, but I think I’ve hit a career impasse, because protecting them is the most important thing I’m supposed to do and I don’t know how anymore. If I can’t protect them, or myself, then it’s time to find another line of work. I just don’t know yet what that might be. Are the caregivers for this nation’s children disposable? I’m afraid we’re about to find out.
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