As childcare programs prepare to reopen as soon as June 1, anxiety is running high for some childcare providers. Those who work at Early Education Services — which, prior to COVID-19, served 184 young children and employed 70 staff members in Brattleboro and Westminster — are especially on edge.
In early May, two teachers providing care for children of essential workers tested positive for the coronavirus. The center closed immediately, executive director Deb Gass said, and none of the children in the teachers’ care tested positive for the virus.
There have been no other cases of COVID-19 in Vermont linked to childcare programs that provided care for children of essential workers in March, April and May, according to Dr. Breena Holmes, maternal and child heath director for the Vermont Department of Health. Only one child in the state under the age of 9 has tested positive for COVID-19, and there have been no documented cases of the multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children that has been linked to the novel coronavirus, she added.
Gov. Phil Scott ordered all childcare programs to close in March as the coronavirus spread in the state. Some centers stayed open to serve kids of essential workers.
According to Gass, her program opened one essential childcare classroom for six children from three different families on March 30. The parents of those children all work in local nursing homes. Two groups of teachers, with four in each group, rotated shifts caring for those children.
The center followed all state guidelines for childcare programs serving essential workers, Gass said, including daily temperature checks of all adults and children.
After exhibiting COVID-related symptoms, one teacher was tested for the virus. On May 7, the test came back positive, and the center closed the next day. Subsequently, another teacher working in the classroom developed symptoms and also tested positive.
Holmes, from the health department, explained that contact tracing did not find a link between the two teachers’ positive COVID-19 cases and children in that program. As a scientist who understands how COVID-19 spreads, Holmes said it isn’t clear to her that the teachers were exposed to the virus in the classroom.
Still, Gass said, “the anxiety and the stress level is incredibly high” among her teachers. Many are “fearful and reluctant” to return to work. She told staff about the first positive COVID-19 test in her program on May 8, the same day Gov. Scott announced that childcare centers would be allowed to reopen at the beginning of June.
“You could hear a pin drop,” Gass said of her staff’s reaction.
Holmes said she and her staff have been fielding 20 to 25 phone calls and 15 emails a day from childcare providers and parents who have questions and concerns about childcare programs reopening. Recently, many of those calls and emails have been about anxiety and mental health, rather than practical and logistical matters, Holmes said: “They’re not usually about, ‘Should I use Lysol versus Clorox?’”
Gass plans to do a “soft opening” of her program — which has three sites in Brattleboro and two in Westminster — on June 15. Thirty-six children will return then and be divided among six classrooms.
Gass said she will prioritize children who are homeless, have open cases with the state Department for Children and Families or have special needs. By July 1, she plans to be fully operational — but she is anticipating that not all families will send children back then and not all staff will opt to return.
Gass explained that Early Education Services is a Head Start program — created by the federal government in 1965 to provide educational, health and support services to the poorest, most vulnerable young children and their families. Since March, her staff has been delivering diapers, infant formula, educational activities and art kits to families, as well as providing lessons to kids and mental health counseling to parents via Zoom. Now, many of these families must return to their jobs and need childcare.
Holmes said that’s why she firmly believes it’s time to reopen childcare centers.
“There are thousands of Vermont children whose parents have no choice but to return to work,” she said. “And I’m so committed to those kids, while standing this up in a way that prevents the spread of the virus.
“The social-emotional support, the joy, the connecting, the physical activity, the nutritional support — it’s all gotta be in the mix, because we can’t be paralyzed by this virus,” Holmes continued. “If we wait for the vaccine, the devastation of our child’s development and learning and just joy is going to be significant, and we’re going to have years of recovery.”