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Top 2020 presidential candidates want to overhaul the child care system. Here’s why the U.S. system is so expensive and why it’s difficult to change.

USA TODAY

AUSTIN, Texas – The afternoon heat had hit 95 degrees when the back door swung open to the playground at the Sweet Briar Child Development Center, nestled in the middle of an apartment complex in south Austin. Five toddlers meandered out of the building and onto the playground, followed by two teachers, their noses and mouths covered by masks. One teacher pushed a cart holding small pitchers, watering cans and a bucket of water toward a garden teeming with flowers.

“Let’s water the sunflowers!” the teacher said, handing children the pitchers and watering cans.

The children spread out, sprinkling water on their roots and gazing up at stalks that towered over them. After a few minutes, the teachers began herding the children away from the garden, and one wheeled the water cart back into the building. 

In the past, the water may have stayed outside to fill a water table or sensory bin, where little hands could splash and children could cool off in the Texas heat. But at a time when Texas is still seeing high numbers of Coronavirus cases, including at child care centers, emergency rules meant to prevent the transmission of the virus mean water tables and sensory bins are strongly discouraged.

Children water flowers at the Woodway Village location of the Sweet Briar Child Development Center in Austin, Texas. At this location, only five children out of 25 that were enrolled before the pandemic are currently attending. (Photo: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)

Nationwide, many child care centers and preschools that managed to survive the coronavirus-induced shutdown are now trying to open their doors once more. Those that did not shut down permanently are facing immense obstacles, including staff shortages and a lack of funds, as well as arduous requirements for cleaning and sanitizing. In some states, agencies that oversee child care have given centers dozens of pages of new, more stringent regulations that, among other things, require centers to keep all children’s belongings at school, to stop serving family-style meals and to clean more frequently than ever.

Some new requirements for centers mean toddler and preschool classrooms have lost or are discouraging some of the basic elements of early childhood, like experiencing the world through physical touch and learning to share toys with friends. In many cases, parents can no longer enter center buildings and must hand their children off at the front door or even commit to sending their child to a center without ever having set foot inside it. 

At a center in Utah, older children are wearing masks and learning to “walk like mummies” to keep distant from other children. In Arizona, children make “airplane arms” when standing in line to leave more space between each child. Across the country, children are changing into indoor shoes when they enter classrooms, relinquishing their bags and lunchboxes for daily disinfecting, and are no longer mingling in groups on playgrounds. 

“You can’t tell a 3-year-old to not hug their friends or be with a friend. It’s bad for them. It’s bad for their social emotional health, and it’s just not feasible.”

Susan Hedges, the director of quality assessment and assurance at the National Association for the Education of Young Children

Even hugs are being discouraged: In recently released recommendations by the Child Development Associate Credential Advisory Committee, made up of five early learning educators, it was suggested that early childhood instructors “teach children to air hug, hug a teddy bear or hug themselves.” 

Experts say many of these practices and recommendations cropped up, out of an abundance of caution, at the height of the pandemic in centers that served children of essential workers, but are not appropriate or practical in the long run. 

“You can’t tell a 3-year-old to not hug their friends or be with a friend,” said Susan Hedges, the director of quality assessment and assurance at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). “It’s bad for them. It’s bad for their social emotional health, and it’s just not feasible.”

A child waters a mammoth sunflower at one of the Sweet Briar Child Development Center locations in Austin, Texas. The center is following rigorous cleaning protocols to stave off the coronavirus. (Photo: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)

Stressful new requirements

But many of the recommendations are here to stay as long as coronavirus is a threat. In Texas, the emergency rules for child care centers require centers to screen parents and children outside for coronavirus-related symptoms at drop-off and to train workers in COVID-19 infection control procedures. HVAC systems must be adjusted to allow fresh air to enter the building. Any “secretions” on a child’s clothes must result in immediately changing the clothes, and caregivers must wash their hands and the child’s hands afterward. Groups of children are supposed to stay with the same caregiver each day and remain separate from other groups.

Some experts and center directors say these requirements, while necessary to control the virus within centers, only add to the stress of running a child care center. Many child care programs operated on razor-thin profit margins before the pandemic, and losing income in the form of tuition payments for several months has been devastating. 

“Frankly, the hardest thing for programs, I think, will be able to stay in business while making the changes they have to make to ensure safety,” Hedges said. Centers will need to purchase extra sanitation equipment and supplies and possibly hire more staff members to maintain smaller groups of students, while at the same time taking on fewer children, which will lead to a drop in income.

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“That can be crippling to the point of making programs not viable,” Hedges said.

Some states have directed federal CARES Act money to provide grants for centers that need to purchase personal protective equipment like masks, but experts largely agree more funding is desperately needed to help centers that are reopening get off the ground. Some centers have resorted to GoFundMe campaigns to raise money after seeing their enrollment drop by more than half. Others have been helped temporarily by local foundations and grants.

Pat Smith, the owner of Sweet Briar, which has two locations in south Austin, is grateful for the financial support she has received from the state, including money for the children they serve who rely on state subsidies for care, even if those children haven’t been in attendance. The state also has paid centers 25% more than the normal subsidy reimbursement rate, which typically falls below the actual cost of caring for children. That money came via federal funds provided to states through the CARES Act specifically for child care-related costs. The center was also paid by the state for serving children of essential workers.

A pre-K class at the Sweet Briar Child Development Center’s Sandra Street location in Austin, Texas, works on a project. Children are dropped off outside the center by their parents each day so fewer people, and theoretically fewer germs, enter the classrooms. (Photo: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)

‘Roller coaster ride’

But Sweet Briar has not avoided other changes that child care programs are experiencing. Enrollment has dropped from 85 to about 50 kids, a number that fluctuates daily. Both Sweet Briar locations have stayed open to serve the children of essential workers throughout the pandemic, which has resulted in a constant learning curve as new information about the coronavirus and requirements for child care centers has changed. 

“It’s a roller coaster ride,” Smith said.

Many of the cleaning and sanitizing practices contained in the new regulations for child care centers were already in use pre-coronavirus at Smith’s center. Hedges said the same should be true of any high-quality center.

That means both teachers and students are washing hands constantly and staff members are frequently sanitizing toys and surfaces. Touch points on the playground, like rubber grippers on swings, are cleaned between classes. In the past, infant classrooms were the only rooms with buckets to collect toys that kids put in their mouths. Now every classroom has a “soiled toy bucket” in which toys are promptly deposited after being whisked away from children who sneeze or touch an item with their mouth.

Staff wear masks at all times; employee and child temperatures are taken daily. Any symptom of illness or rash, even something that may have not been much cause for concern in the past, now results in a child being immediately isolated and then sent home. 

During circle time, children must spread out, away from each other. While groups of both 3- and 4-year-olds would play together outside in the past, now just one age group uses the playground at a time. At one of the center’s locations, a portable hand-washing station was installed near the playground. 

To make the additional work manageable, Sweet Briar shortened its operating hours by 30 minutes in the morning and evening; now it opens at 7:15 a.m. and closes at 5:30 p.m., something Smith says has made an immense difference. 

“If we were operating as we were prior to COVID, we’d have to hire two more people,” she said. “The shorter hours, the lower numbers (of children) are making it more feasible.” 

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The precautionary measures Sweet Briar has put in place are meant to lessen the transmission of the virus between children and also between caregivers. Smith said staff members frequently hold each other accountable for maintaining safe practices outside of work, lightheartedly reminding each other not to go out on the weekends and to keep a safe distance from their mothers and grandmothers to spare them exposure to germs. They’re also keeping distance from each other when at the centers. 

“Teachers are not socializing,” Smith said. “You can’t mingle in the kitchen. You can’t chat at nap time.” 

Despite the potential risks, many experts and parents say it’s important for child care centers and preschools to be able to safely open. Many parents rely on the nation’s child care providers, who serve some 12 million children under the age of 5 each day, in order to work. But group care and learning offer benefits for children as well as parents: less social isolation, more eyes on a child to see signs of neglect or abuse and the chance to interact with other children and build the early learning skills that can set them up for success in elementary school.

“For the very youngest children, the smallest children, that is their main developmental job: to learn basic social emotional skills,” Hedges said. “They need to have the opportunity to be with peers. They need to develop these skills in a supportive environment.” 

The Sweet Briar Child Development Center in south Austin, Texas, has stayed open to serve children of essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)

Teachers at Sweet Briar said there are some benefits to the new status quo, like smaller class sizes that allow them to focus more on individual students. 

There have been challenges. The center’s washing machine recently stopped running, something that would have been a minor inconvenience in the past but is critical now that teachers must wash children’s nap mats and blankets each week to comply with new regulations.

And one thing continues to worry Smith: that her shorter hours won’t remain viable for many parents if they lose flexible schedules and return to set work hours. She hopes that both parents and employers will stay patient as the nation struggles with the pandemic. 

“We are managing. It just is something that we’re mucking through every day,” Smith said. “I think everybody understands we’re just doing the best we can.”

This story about child care regulations was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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