The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance Friday providing strategies to help child care operators offer in-person care safely.
During a White House briefing Friday, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, called the guidelines a “one-stop shop” for childcare providers of all types — including family home providers, child care centers and Head Start programs — as they cope with the challenges of the pandemic. Walensky added that the suggestions are based on the latest available scientific evidence.
“That science includes additional evidence showing that, when used consistently and correctly, prevention strategies such as mask wearing, staying home when sick, and good hand hygiene can allow childcare programs to operate safely and reduce the spread of COVID-19,” she said.
Many child care providers have been operating during the pandemic
Though some child care providers closed at the outset of the pandemic, many reopened early on and have remained open for months. As of December 2020, 13% of child care centers and 13% of family child care providers were closed, according to a report from Child Care Aware, a child care advocacy group.
These organizations have already been doing much of what the CDC recommended Friday, said Nicole Garro, the director of early childhood health programs at Child Care Aware. Still, Garro said, they’re “grateful” for the new guidance. The guidelines were last updated in July, before vaccines were available and when we had a different understanding of the factors leading to the spread of COVID-19.
“This information is really important to ensuring that child care [providers] remain open and safe,” she said.
In particular, the CDC provided more information on ventilation and strategies child care providers can use to increase ventilation — such as opening doors and windows, employing child safe fans and using a portable high-efficiency particulate air cleaner — if they don’t have an HVAC system or can’t afford to revamp their ventilation system.
The guidance also provided helpful suggestions for ensuring that children with disabilities have access to safe child care, even if mask-wearing may be challenging for this group, Garro said. Overall, the guidelines reiterate that children who are at least 2-years-old, as well as child care staffers should wear masks, except for when eating or sleeping.
In addition, the CDC provided information on safe disinfection practices and recommended child care providers separate children into distinct groups with assigned staffers, that students and workers stay in these groups across days, and that the child care center minimize interaction between groups.
The new guidelines come as child care industry receives relief funding
The guidance is particularly “timely,” said Mario Cardona, chief of policy and practice at Child Care Aware, because it’s coming at a moment when child care providers are slated to receive more funding. The relief package signed by President Joe Biden this week will send $24 billion for child care providers to put towards their operations.
“Child care providers stand to have a significant amount of resources to put against a lot of these mitigation measures that are being suggested by the CDC,” Cardona said.
The suggestions come as the Biden administration is pushing educators and states to get students into settings with in-person learning. Perhaps the most crucial resource the administration is marshalling in this effort is funding. The stimulus package signed by Biden Thursday includes roughly $170 billion for K-12 schools and colleges and in addition to the funding for child care operators.
Biden also announced earlier this month that the federal government would be standing up a vaccination program for educators, including child care providers.
In addition, officials are using the bully pulpit to encourage more widespread in-person learning. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and First Lady Jill Biden toured schools teaching in-person at the beginning of March. And the CDC’s child care guidance comes about a month after the agency released a set of strategies outlining how K-12 schools could reopen safely.
The challenges of having children away from typical educational and care settings have vexed families and policymakers. Millions of women have dropped out of the labor force during the pandemic, likely in part because of the demands of having children at home all day and managing their education.
Experts also worry that children have suffered both learning and social and emotional losses from being separated from their peers and educators during this period.
Child care providers have struggled financially
But for child care providers, this period has presented another wrinkle. Unlike K-12 public schools, which receive state and local funding, and private nonprofit K-12 schools funded by tuition and donors, the centers and at-home operations providing child care often function essentially as small businesses and are plagued with many of the challenges those firms faced during the pandemic.
Though many child care providers are open now, at the beginning of the pandemic when state shutdown orders were setting in, many closed, putting their livelihoods at risk. At least 35% of child care centers and 21% of family child care providers were closed in July, according to a report from that period from Child Care Aware.
Once these providers opened, the costs of operating in a pandemic environment — including personal protective equipment, more staff to decrease staff to teacher ratios, and more — has put these organizations at risk financially.
Roughly 52% of child care providers, who responded to a September survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, have taken on debt to stay afloat. In addition, about half said they raised tuition for at least some families between March and September.
Those financial challenges are part of why Cardona described the bill signed this week as a “breath of relief.”
“For providers who are already operating on fairly thin budgets,” the extra funding required to operate during the pandemic, “either comes from the providers’ pockets or the families’ pockets,” Cardona said, “because there isn’t a system in place to provide stable support.”