By Linnea Covington, Special to The Denver Post
The first week of June, Christine Bettlach Anderson of Denver sent her 4-month-old son James to his day care for the first time since the pandemic started.
“Of course we have reservations, but we feel safe with the precautions the day care is taking,” Bettlach Anderson said last week. “We both work and it’s impossible to get work done with a baby at home. Impossible.”
More day care centers are opening up, but just because it’s increasingly available, sending your children out of the home can be a weighty decision for parents while coronavirus hangs over us.
Bettlach Anderson said she did her research on how COVID-19 is affecting kids, and follows economist and parenting expert Emily Oster’s weekly newsletter. She feels that being informed has and given her confidence in her family’s decision.
“My emotions this week were more about the general aspect of sending him out of the home and him being gone,” she said, adding that she’s more concerned with her pharmacist husband’s safety in the workplace than her son’s in his care center, Highlands Academy in Denver. “I’m choosing to trust that the day care is doing everything in their power to keep him and themselves and us parents safe.”
She’s not alone in feeling that day care is a safe and necessary option. When restrictions lifted on child care facilities on June 1, our own family also eagerly and nervously decided to admit our 3-year-old back to his home preschool.
But just because the kids could go back, that didn’t mean it was business as usual. The reopening came with a list of rules and precautions, all meant to make us feel safe and keep us healthy.
The first drop-off felt awkward as we abided by the new standard, but by the end of the week it was second nature to slip on a mask, sanitize my son’s hands and mine on the preschool’s porch where he took off his shoes and I signed in with a clean pen. He couldn’t bring anything in with him, and we took his temperature before his teacher would take him inside. No parents were allowed in the house or backyard, and a mask was mandatory for pick-up and drop-off.
All in all, taking him back felt safe — or, at least, safer than before the COVID-19 cases dwindled. We knew he would be with kids whose families may or may not be practicing the same level of social distancing, but we choose to hope they are. In the end, our decision rested on our son needing stimulation and us needing the care.
After a week of preschool, we have all felt the relief, and don’t regret our decision.
Like our preschool, Laura Brewer Hartley’s Wheat Ridge Learning Academy put in a huge effort to keep things as clean as possible. In fact, Brewer Hartley never closed her center, and instead opened it up to the kids of essential workers across the city. To make the space as sterile as possible, she had everything removed that couldn’t easily be sanitized, including stuffed animals, dress-up clothes and pillows.
“We were nervous when we took in the children who weren’t our regular students. We realized it was an increased risk since their parents were working jobs that were high risk,” said Brewer Hartley, adding that aside from cleaning all the time it was the uncertainty and the government’s changing rules that proved the most challenging. “But we were really diligent and the parents were diligent and overall we were really lucky. Everyone has been super healthy.”
But for other families, the benefits of child care don’t outweigh the risk of infection, a sentiment that’s understandable, given that experts predict the coronavirus will continue to spread, even after Colorado’s decline over the month-long stay-at-home order and subsequent safer-at-home status.
“I am not comfortable sending my daughter back right now,” said Mary Harman Parks, who has a 4-year-old child who is prone to respiratory illness. “I want to see how the Safer at Home order will influence the number of COVID-19 cases in the weeks to come before sending her back. If we can play a small role in keeping the curve semi-flat for as long as possible, then I want to do that, too.”
Many facilities around Denver understand parents’ fears, even with all the precautions being taken. All three locations of Tiny Hearts Academy have undergone a thorough cleaning, and have plenty of rules in place.
“If the kids have any signs in line with COVID we need a note from their doctor saying they are COVID-negative, or a confirmation it’s something else. Otherwise, they have to stay home until they’re symptom-free,” said Christy Suner, who owns Tiny Hearts Academy with her husband, Omar. “We also had our teachers sign an agreement of etiquette to follow the governor’s order (of social distancing) when not at work.”
The staff also cleans all the time. When the first stay-at-home order came through in mid-March, Tiny Hearts closed for two weeks for a deep cleaning, and the Suners made sure none of the teachers or kids were sick before opening two of their three locations. The enrollment was much smaller, and the class sizes were cut in half.
Suner said that now when parents drop their children off, it’s all done outside with masks and a lot of hand sanitizer. The staff cleans the rooms and spaces thoroughly two times a day, and the temperatures of students and staff are taken numerous times. Plus, there is diligent hand-washing of both kids and the teachers.
“If we get even one COVID case, we are going to close,” said Omar Suner. “So far there have been no cases of parents, kids or teachers.”
Now that the day care capacity rules have slackened, the center reports many of the families are coming back. However, Tiny Hearts Academy used to have a 2 1/2-year waitlist and now has multiple spots open for new kids.
Parents know that wait lists for child care are a big deal in Denver, and Tiny Hearts Academy’s years-long one proves common. But despite that, finally getting access to child care in the center she really wanted wasn’t enough for parent Rosemari Ochoa to send her child.
“We had our daughter on the wait list since August 2017 and we finally (got) a spot in May, but now are postponing indefinitely,” says Ochoa, whose child is 2 1/2. “I’ve been following the research and epidemiology on this closely, and I know that with a lot of infectious disease, it’s not solved in one wave.”
While she would welcome the chance to work from home without her daughter, Ochoa’s based her decision on her years of experience as an infectious disease researcher and expert. She reads the daily epidemiology report from the state each night and feels it’s not the right time to expose her family.
“I think we have a lot of unanswered questions about this virus and how it spreads,” said Ochoa. “We know putting her in a day care would increase the risk bubble not only for our family but for others, so that idea has been tabled until the foreseeable future.”
But for parent Allison Woodson, the steps that Mount Saint Vincent day care in Highland took to start up again gave her faith they were doing it right — or, at least, the best they could. One reason for her decision to send her 4-year-old daughter, Amaryllis, back was how the school is structured. Mount Saint Vincent is connected to a child trauma treatment facility, and a board of trustees makes the decisions instead of a sole director.
“Knowing there were layers of informed people deciding it was good to open made me feel better about sending her back,” Woodson said, adding it also helped that they sanitize twice a day and don’t let anyone but kids and the staff in the building. “Also, it seemed they were opening to provide assistance to us as parents, as opposed to opening because they were going broke.”
The later part of Woodson’s statement plays a factor in many private day care operations, but Mount Saint Vincent is run by trustees and gets funding and donations. So while tuition helps, it’s not the sole income. Woodson also commented on how communicative the staff is, something that gave her confidence in steps the center was taking to keep everyone safe.
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