SPECIAL COVERAGE ON THE CORONAVIRUS
Child Care Programs Face Challenges During Rollout
By Kristen Arute, Hingham Current Staff, Posted: June 15, 2020
“I love my job,” said Barbara Zsigalov who has been running a Family Child Care (“FCC”) program out of her Hingham home for 17 years, “and I miss the kids so much!! I am EXTREMELY lucky to have families that truly appreciate the long days I put in caring for their little ones.”
It has been a full week since Governor Charlie Baker announced that Massachusetts would be entering Phase 2 of its economic reopening plan in which more industries, including child care, will be allowed to open. While people are making preparations to return to their jobs in either the near or distant future, one question is on everyone's minds: how is child care being rolled out? After all, many members of the workforce rely on safe, reliable, affordable daycare programs for their children in order to remain employed.
Exempt Emergency Childcare programs are the only ones that have been allowed to operate since March 23rd due to the Governor's mandate. Special licensure was required to operate in this fashion, but many providers declined the opportunity due to the risks. However, even if they had chosen to open, they would not have been able to accommodate their existing clients. According to the Department of Early Education and Care (“EEC”) that oversees the licensure of all childcare programs in the state, emergency care was set up for children of essential workers and vulnerable families only. "Families who work to maintain the health, safety and welfare of all Commonwealth citizens will receive priority access to these emergency childcare programs," said Gov. Baker. "Vulnerable children will also receive priority access."
Over the past three months, families that qualify for care have had to find it on their own using a database of providers located on a portal created by EEC. No proof of need has been required nor have parents been asked for proof of essential employment. Although licensors check in with EECCPs on a daily basis to see if they are active, emergency care has been conducted on the honor system since its inception. And because private pay has been strictly forbidden, all emergency care has been paid for with tax dollars regardless of whether or not the programs have been active.
A new funding policy was instituted to support this initiative where EECCPs would receive $1000 per week from the State regardless of how many children they care for, and larger centers would be eligible to receive up to $20,000 per month depending upon the number of classrooms they operate. The State has also continued to cover the cost of childcare vouchers - including the parent portion - of all subsidized programs that have closed. In theory, a childcare provider could receive both subsidies and emergency care payments without ever taking in a single child. According to an EEC spokesperson, some of the costs associated with these COVID-related activities will be covered by federal funding. That will likely be the parent portion of subsidized care.
EEC was established in July 2005 as the State agency responsible for licensing all childcare providers in Massachusetts. This task had been previously assigned to local Boards of Health. EEC is part of the Executive Office of Education and has five regional offices across Massachusetts that are overseen by the main office in Boston. An eleven member Board sets policies and regulations, and EEC licenses approximately 9,000 child care programs that have the capacity to serve an estimated 230,000 children. As of June 30, 2018, the agency had a total of 174 employees with state appropriations of $576.8M and federal grant appropriations of $16.3M.
Whether it’s a center-based program or one that’s run out of a home, every childcare provider is required to abide by EEC guidelines. Now there is a whole new set that was specifically created to address the risks of reopening, and programs are not allowed to reopen until they sign off on them and receive approval. Last week EEC provided templates and forms for providers to review and complete. Then, after receiving pushback in emails and phone calls, EEC held a Facebook Live event on their page to review the new regulations and address concerns from providers. The reception was mixed.
One of the primary complaints was the amount of information. There are three new documents on top of the existing 70+ pages of pre-COVID regulations. One is a 32-page document of reopening standards that has been updated three times since it was released two weeks ago; another is a 6-page supplement to the standards; and the third is a 15-page Q&A that helps clarify the regulations. Most concerning to many is the “Self-Attestation” document that providers are required to sign if they wish to reopen. It is a legally-binding contract that establishes a system of fines and penalties if providers fail to comply. Based on the language in the regulations, this is worrisome. “Licensors have long been known to penalize us on their interpretation of regs,” shared a FCC provider under the condition of anonymity. “Just how do you interpret the words ‘recommended’ and ‘encouraged?'”
Some of the new regulations that providers are expected to adhere to in order to limit the spread of the virus include wearing a mask all day, preventing children from coming into contact with one another, staggering snack and meal times, providing at least 42 square feet (according to EEC, providers would "ideally" have 144 square feet) of open floor space as exclusive use per child and a multi-stepped approach to diapering children that involves changing gloves twice and washing hands three times. Other regulations, like taking children’s temperatures upon arrival and throughout the day using a contactless thermometer or wearing a long-sleeved, button-down shirt that required frequent changing at specific times, were removed.
However, due to social distancing, providers are being asked to promote zero contact or group play amongst children, which means, among other things, no circle time and no sand boxes. This does not sit well with many. “As a FCC provider of almost 27 years my goal has always been to offer safe, loving, nurturing care and to teach children in such a way that encourages them to be kind, loving little humans,” said one commenter on EEC’s Facebook page. “I will do everything it takes to meet and follow these guidelines; however, it goes against everything I have learned about childcare and education.”
This week EEC is expecting providers to submit their plans for review and approval. Pre-School Playmates in South Hingham is in the process of planning next steps. “We’re preparing for reopening now, though we don’t have a firm date yet,” said owner Jay Fleming, “and the last thing we’re going to do is rush it.” Right now, their Graduation/End of the Year Celebration on Wednesday is top priority. “There’s no way were we not going to celebrate this milestone for the children!” said Jay. “They and their parents need the closure that this will bring plus the self confidence boost of having their accomplishments recognized is very important for the children.”
The new regulations have required them to retool their curriculum and daily schedule so that they can remain focused on social and emotional learning. Over the past several months they have found creative ways to keep this a priority and are looking forward to putting it into practice in person once again. This has not been lost on their clients. “We are incredibly grateful to Pre-School Playmates,” said Marie Vogel whose daughter is enrolled in the program and whose older children were too. “They make it clear that the school and staff are always thinking about their students, and we really can feel, in so many ways, how much they care about their students and families.”
EECCPs will slowly be phased out, and regular childcare will be phased back in. The transition will continue to have its challenges. “The good news is that as tough as it will be from a business standpoint, having smaller groups of children with even more teachers will result in an amazing experience,” said Jay. “We keep saying that this year will be different in order to be the same as it’s always been – even better in some ways.”
REOPENING STANDARDS: (32 pages)
SUPPLEMENT: (released a week after initial standards were released, 6 pages)
Q&A: (to clarify the regulations, 15 pages)