Returning to Childcare & Learning: Lessons

Our Park Slope Parents groups have been talking through sending kids back to childcare. Discussions have centered upon how to deal with separation anxiety after so many months of close contact, precautions childcare facilities are taking, and how to prepare your child for reentry. We even had a webinar with a Manhattan-based childcare facility, Vivvi, about the transition back. Read on for key takeaways!

 

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As you already know, there is no one right answer. It would be great if you could simply see your pediatrician and get a definitive answer on whether or not your child should return to daycare or school this fall, but this decision is a deeply personal one, and no one else can make it for you. Fortunately, as you make this choice—and the many other choices that define daily life in the “new normal”—guidance from friends, relatives, colleagues, and experts can help you reach a conclusion that you and your family are comfortable with. And as long as that’s the case, you’ve made the right decision.

 

Trust. As we move forward with reopening, trust is paramount, but it doesn’t begin and end with the school; trust must also extend to the students and families, with an emphasis on community responsibility and accountability.

 

Vivvi's co-founders, Charlie and Ben, identified four key pillars for a successful reopening:

  • Safety and compliance

  • Cleanliness and consistency

  • Community commitment

  • Frequent and open dialogue

 

While the first two should be applied to all businesses during the pandemic, the second two are more specific to childcare and learning, and for Vivvi, those are the areas to focus on cultivating among the broader staff, student, and family community.

 

Health and safety plan. Below is a pared-down version of Vivvi’s full plan, which, in conjunction with our daycare reopening questions, can help you figure out key points of focus when you’re communicating with your childcare provider.

 

vivvi health and safety

 

Key bottlenecks for health and safety. In conjunction with the four pillars for reopening, Charlie and Ben have identified three specific health and safety markers for reopening readiness:

  • Consistent, accessible, reliable testing for staff. For Vivvi, this means that teachers are required to be tested for Covid once every three weeks (at minimum). Testing is done on a staggered schedule so that there is always an available snapshot of overall health.

  • Daily temperature checks for students and parents.

  • Daily health screenings for families.

 

Vivvi also supplied some specifics about masking and social distancing at school, which you can take into consideration when benchmarking and thinking through your facility’s protocols.

 

Masks for teachers. Vivvi teachers are required to wear masks in the facility, and encouraged to wear them on public transit and in daily life outside of work. Many people are understandably concerned about the impact of masks on kids’ ability to read facial cues and build relationships, but Charlie and Ben have not found this to be an issue in practice. Teachers can still show ample love and care while masked, and mask-wearing can become a fun part of the daily routine (with songs, dances, etc. helping to reinforce the practice).

 

Masks for kids. Experts do not recommend masks for kids under two due to safety concerns. At Vivvi, parents bring in face coverings for children over two, and teachers work with students to encourage masking. With the understanding that it can be tough to get toddlers to keep their masks on (we have tips on that!), teachers apply a strategy of care and empathy rather than hard-line enforcement.

 

Social distancing for teachers. Vivvi classrooms each have three teachers, all of whom are required to mask up and encouraged to social distance, with the understanding that maintaining six feet is not logistically possible at all times. Staff lunch breaks must be taken outside of the classroom and be appropriately distanced. To that end, the shared staff room tables have been arranged for distancing. Charlie and Ben reminded us that your teachers are likely just as concerned about health and safety as you are. Having faith in them to take the highest possible level of precautions is another aspect of the community trust that’s crucial for reopening.

 

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Our members have been thinking through various aspects of reopening for preschool (and daycare—check that out here). Some key themes that emerged include:

 

Even with infection rates remaining low in NYC, there is still risk wherever other people are involved.

 

“We just decided that we'll be keeping our 3 year old home instead of sending him to his 3s program this year.  Ultimately, we decided we weren't comfortable taking the risk right now.  We're lucky enough to have it be a ‘decision’ because I'm a SAHM so we had him signed up for enrichment purposes and not because we need the childcare. II think we'll feel differently if this is still going on when he reaches official preschool age and needs peer socialization more for his development. (Although hopefully by then there will be better treatment options at the very least and more concrete best practices). Our pediatrician was of the mindset that he's able to get his social skills from our family unit right now and that keeping him home for another year won't be detrimental to his social emotional development. It'll just be really hard for me with no break ;)”

 

“We are likewise not sending our September 2017 son. I’m also a SAHP, which is a big factor in the decision for us, as we don’t have an urgent need for childcare. We are also extremely fortunate to have a yard at home, a car for safe travel, and sibling social harmony (our 2017 kiddo is extremely close to his older brother, perhaps even more so with the current level of family togetherness). All things considered, I don’t feel that there are enough benefits to a group school program above and beyond what he’s getting at home, that would also outweigh the elevated risk and stress level for all of us. I truly hope that this is a temporary situation, though, so that we can all look forward to greater educational normalcy some time in the coming year!”

 

And if your child is prone to mild illnesses, symptom checks may pose a problem.

 

“even if, best case scenario, school is full time, we will have to keep our daughter home ANY time she has the slightest whiff of Corona virus. Runny nose? She may be kept home for DAYS to avoid infecting the rest of the class. How many times would we be running to the dr for a test?”

 

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But for some, the developmental benefits of schooling outweigh the difficulties.

 

“I am of the mind...that school is paramount to his development, as a preemie who is behind on various milestones, so he will go if school opens and we will monitor him very closely. We have the various lists of what to look out for as symptoms of illness and will just be extra extra extra [cautious] about keeping him home if he is exhibiting any. Even if he misses a large chunk of school due to being sick or someone else getting sick, I still feel strongly he needs the social interaction and that the reward outweighs the risk. Also hoping that, once school does start, there can be a meeting of the class parents to go over the rules and talk about scenarios in which someone may be sick - I think it's important to act like a community at times like this and protect our little people.”

 

“It's a difficult decision, but did anyone see that the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a statement saying the risk of not putting kids in schools far outweighs the benefits. Here's a link from CNN. The YMCA also showed no spread of COVID in its daycares since the outbreak. Here's an NPR article.”

 

And the social benefits are not to be overlooked either.

 

“We are going ahead with L. entering preschool if they open in the fall. He is starved for attention and I think it will do wonders for him and me. We have started some outside playdates with a close family and it really has made his life and mood much better. As like with what Maggie said - we have tried the playground a couple times hesitantly (when it's not crowded and with plenty of hand sanitizer and he has had the best time). We are starting at Open House and I really am happy with our choice - even though every family has to make the right decision with their circumstances and anxiety levels. Two of my friends sent their kids back to daycare last month and everyone is healthy.

 

The Brian Lehrer show did a segment on preschool risks also this week -- worth a listen.”

 

“The positive change in my daughter was almost immediate. It’s so obvious she was craving school and in-person social interaction. We have no family nearby and I’ve been back at the office part time since July 13th. With infection rates as low as they are and return to in-office work, putting our daughter back in school is the best choice.”

 

For those who are working, preschool can fill the high-priority need for childcare.

 

“I may have to return to my office part time soon, and my husband is a full time student and we were both burnt working from home full time and having our son watch way too much tv etc. It is not zero risk but our pediatrician said her concerns for my son are low since young children rarely get sick but we should keep in mind that he can spread it to us so we shouldn’t hang out w vulnerable ppl. We socially distance otherwise. He’s been so happy there that I think the decision has been a good one. If rates creep up in nyc I would probably amend my thinking.

 

From everything I’ve read young children especially are at low risk of both getting sick and possibly even spreading illness to others. So for us the benefits outweighed the risk but of course I worry also. Seeing how happy he is there helps.”

 

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If you’re wanting to see (or keep seeing) relatives who are at a higher risk for the coronavirus, you’ll need to take that into consideration when weighing risks.

 

“We finally made our decision for the year, which is to continue keeping the kids at home (with the help of our sitter and my parents). Given that we have a relatively low-risk setup that is working for us, and that we'd like to continue seeing my parents (which feels a bit too risky if our kids are back in two separate schools), it just feels like the right move for our family — and we recognize how lucky we are to even be in a position to make that decision.”

 

You can always change your mind and pull your child out of school if things take a turn for the scary.

 

“I think this difficult decision rests with each family’s circumstances and comfort levels. When our daycare started back up in June, we were ready and comfortable sending our 2.5 yr old back with the understanding that if we felt unsure for any reason we would pull him back out. After picking him up that first day and seeing how happy he was to see his friends again (and how happy we were to have our time again) we were so glad we did it.

 

But our circumstances were such that we knew the group would be small (about half chose to return), they have an outside backyard to run around in, we trusted all the parents to take appropriate precautions and we were in constant contact with the caregivers whom we trust implicitly to enact like-minded safety measures. We also walk to daycare. And as a happy surprise, because the group has been so small, we and our child have formed closer friendships to the other families who attend. Our son now has a best friend whom we also spend time with outside of daycare.

 

As for fall, our comfort levels may feel different as more children are expected to return and we brace for the possible ‘second-wave’. But like before our plan is to enroll our child until it feels risky. We also don’t have a newborn to contend with which may have changed our decision.”

 

You may be able to split the difference and send your child to school for a half-day or a reduced schedule.

 

“At the beginning of July we sent our 3yo son back to the summer camp that the preschool where he had his 2's program runs. We spoke to our pediatrician about it and it seems like for his age group the risk is relatively low. They do keep the kids masked pretty much all the time, though it is not required, and my son is generally good about wearing his. They are also spending most of the days outside. And to hedge our bets a bit, we decided to only have him attend 9am-12 noon, which means he eats lunch and naps at home, cutting the amount of time he's doing things unmasked even further. After 4 months of him going crazy (and frankly driving me and my WFH husband crazy) while being cooped up in the house, it seems like the risks were worth it for how much happier we have been now that he's getting to run around outside and see his friends everyday. In the past week we also officially decided we would go through with sending him to the 3's program we had signed him up for at this same preschool as well. I was laid off in early July, so both as a financial consideration and a way to cut risk somewhat, he'll only be doing mornings this coming year.”

 

“I will say, I mentioned to the director of A’s school that if there were a partial day, outdoor-only option — i.e. drop off at the playground in the morning, pick up before lunch and nap time — that's definitely something we would consider participating in. I am concerned about the risk of transmission indoors, but outside is a different situation. We'll see!”

 

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All of these factors coalesce into a tricky set of pros and cons.

 

Why send to school?:

- We want A. to have the friendships, camaraderie, and learning of a classroom setting

- We want to support a critical local business

- Some of the data that's come out (Emily Oster's tracking, the YMCA research) has made it sound like the risk is really low

- The school is taking so many precautions and taking it all incredibly seriously

- It's been really difficult for both of us to do our jobs from home with two little kids in the house, even with childcare help

- Since there's unlikely to be a "pay a fee to reserve your slot" option, staying home would mean staying home for the LONG run, like through the entire school year, even if a vaccine becomes available etc.

 

Why stay home?:

- Our sitter is wonderful and A. actually probably prefers being here with them (and us) over going to school, which isn't really his favorite

- Little kids are resilient and fast learners and don't *have* to go to school at this age to have normal learning and development etc.

- If we were to send the kids to school, we might need to stay away from my parents, which would be heartbreaking for everyone (I recognize this is the reality many people are already living with)

- Scary case studies from the Midwest and Sun Belt are making me worry that it's not as low risk as Emily Oster and the YMCA made it seem

- My husband and I could consider finding an office space to go to during the day (or perhaps biking to my parents' apartment) to remove the "having kids in the house while WFH" stress factor.”

 

Parents are undeniably in a difficult spot, but schools need our support and advocacy too.

 

“I'm also keeping a close eye on the Empire State Childcare Campaign to make sure that I understand what is happening, and I'm keeping my eye out for opportunities for advocacy. Individual childcare centers are at the mercy of state and local governments that are basically leaving them to fend for themselves. Schools are communities. It's tempting to make demands, or just divest if something seems less than ideal. I wonder how we can work together to advocate for schools, and ask the schools how we can help to ensure that the people we entrust to care for our children are also safe and cared for.”

 

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These are hard decisions. Be gentle with yourself.

 

“I just want to echo the difficulty of making a decision for the next 9 months that has significant repercussions (financially, in terms of seeing your family, for the entire structure of your life, for your health) when we know so little about actual risk, actual risk mitigation, and so little in terms of what that commitment will yield (will the kids actually go to the schools we commit to). I think we're in an impossible situation, but it's the one we're in. I also have not made a decision yet but the one thing I have decided is zero self-recrimination whatever happens. There will be big downsides to whatever we decide. That's the deal.”

 

 

 

Some of this content is based on the webinar from the folks behind Vivvi, Charlie Bonello (co-founder/CEO/First Dad) and Ben Newton (co-founder/COO). Vivvi remained open throughout the pandemic for the children of first responders and is now reopening for the rest of its students. Charlie and Ben shared their learnings and best practices regarding precautions and the importance of trust within the community.

 

 

Further reading and resources: