When Is It Safe For Parents To Send Their Kids To Day Care?

You'll need a clear picture of the specific safety measures your child’s day care is taking to help keep everyone healthy.
Many day cares are open, and some are reopening. But how can parents gauge safety?
ChiccoDodiFC via Getty Images
Many day cares are open, and some are reopening. But how can parents gauge safety?

My younger kid has had pretty much the same weekday routine since he was four months old. We walk his older brother to school, then we drop him off at day care — a sweet, family-run business in our neighborhood in New York City where he spends five full days a week.

That was until about nine weeks ago, of course, when my husband and I stopped going in to work, our local schools were canceled, and it became obvious that COVID-19 had been spreading around us for some time.

My son’s day care has not actually closed during the pandemic. Like many child care centers around the country, it has remained open throughout the crisis, largely to provide care for children of essential workers, though I don’t know how many families are actually using it. My husband and I are fortunate. We have just enough flexibility in our jobs that we’ve been able to keep our children home and find ways to juggle work, remote learning and toddler care. But it does not feel like a sustainable model. (And no, we cannot afford one-on-one care.)

So what comes next? How can parents like me make the confusing, high-stakes decision to send our kiddos back in? Here are some things to have in mind.

There are no clear-cut answers.

It would be truly excellent if there were reliable, universal metrics that could definitively tell day cares and parents when it’s safe for a bunch of kids to receive regular care together. There aren’t.

“Any guidance we offer is being guided by the data that is available at the moment,” Dr. Sally Goza, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told HuffPost. The AAP has offered guidance on child care centers and COVID-19 as well as on reopening schools during the crisis.

“Whatever we say today could be changed by the new data that comes in every day,” Goza said. Certainly, the discovery of pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a Kawasaki-like disease likely linked to COVID-19 that has claimed the lives of at least three children in New York, could shift conversations about safety.

Of course, state and local health officials play an absolutely critical role in determining when it’s safe for child care centers to be open — or not. As does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Beyond that, decisions about sending your child back to day care have a lot to do with your family’s particular situation, weighing a lot of complicated considerations. Some parents have no choice but to send their kids in, and have been doing so throughout the crisis. Others have to make their own calculations about their particular situations and what level of risk they can tolerate.

Before you send your kid in, know how your day care is handling social distancing.

Social distance is, of course, a pretty laughable concept when you’re talking about babies and toddlers. My 2-year-old’s drop-off routine generally involves him bear-hugging his teachers and then giving a slobbery kiss to at least one of his friends.

“There are many things that all child care centers should be doing once they reopen to keep children and families safe.”

- Dr. Sally Goza, AAP

That does not mean child care centers shouldn’t try where they can. The AAP guidelines on child care centers and COVID-19 say, for example, that kids should be kept six feet apart during nap time and meals. And day cares should avoid close group-learning activities like reading circles.

The CDC, which has also issued guidelines for child care centers, says facilities should stagger arrival and pick-up times as much as possible to avoid direct contact with parents and between families.

“Young children love to hug. They like to be right up next to each other. They don’t like masks. So those are going to be challenges,” Goza said.

Ask what other COVID-19-specific safety measures they’re taking.

All day care centers should be doing daily temperature checks, the CDC and AAP say. And to avoid putting staff at risk, they should be done with at least six feet of distance — so, when you drop your kiddo off in the morning, you might swipe his or her forehead with a thermometer while a staff member watches.

Some other big considerations? Make sure you know how your child’s day care is handling hand-washing, how it’s cleaning and disinfecting the facility and toys (and getting rid of any that can’t be cleaned), and what changes it’s making in handling food prep.

Ask about masks. Not for kids, who aren’t supposed to wear them if they’re under the age of 2. But will staff wear masks? Stephen Kramer, CEO of Bright Horizons, the national child care provider, told HuffPost that all of its employees will wear masks while they’re working. Also, teachers and kids won’t switch classrooms throughout the day.

What you want is a clear picture of the specific safety measures your child’s day care is taking to help keep everyone healthy.

Know that things could open and close in waves.

It’s possible that as more day care centers reopen, cases will spike. If that happens, individual centers and local health departments might make the decision to close things down again. Or if your child’s day care has a staff member or relative who has COVID-19, it will likely have to close so it can be cleaned to keep everyone safe.

“There may be rolling closures, where they’re open, then they’re closed, then they’re open again,” Goza said.

Consider everyone’s mental health.

Going back to day care is likely to be a big transition for young kids who have been at home with you for several months. Goza told HuffPost it will be very important that parents and care providers pay close attention to how children are coping. Don’t be caught off-guard by a big increase in clinginess, for example.

Of course, that does not mean you don’t send your kid back in — particularly because your own mental health needs to be a consideration in all of this. Just be prepared to hold your child’s hands a bit.

“To help children prepare to return to their child care center, parents can explain to their children that school might look a little different than the last time they were there,” Kramer said. “You can make up a game or silly song about temperature checks to make them feel comfortable with the new step at drop-off. Parents can also prepare their child in advance by wearing a mask at home.”

Make the point that superheroes wear masks, he offered, and remind them that their teachers are heroes.

“Most importantly, remain calm and positive about the changes happening at the child care center,” Kramer urged. “Your child will pick up on that.”

Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but its guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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