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Still open, Delaware daycares operate in uncertainty

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Teacher Alyson Melson cleans toys at Kidz Ink IV in Bear on Thursday. Kidz Ink is among the Delaware daycares choosing to stay open while some close amid the coronavirus pandemic.| DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Daycare owner Aretha Kitson, president of five Kidz Ink daycare facilities in Bear, Dover and Smyrna, is caught in the middle as parents and politicians debate whether daycares should remain open in Delaware. Her locations have been seeing an average of about 70 children this week, which is about 50% or 60% of their normal enrollment.

After Gov. John Carney ordered all of the state’s schools to close for two weeks due to the threat of coronavirus, many parents around Delaware asked, ‘Why not daycares?’

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged the public to practice social distancing, or avoiding crowds to slow the transmission of the virus. The tactic has led to the closure of businesses and the banning of dining in restaurants.

But a University of Delaware epidemiologist says there’s data that indicates it may be alright to let things play out with daycares.

Carney has said that his decision to close schools was more precautionary in nature, allowing school districts struggling to plan their courses of action amid the pandemic time to properly organize to move to online instruction. In a Monday night public question-and-answer webinar, Carney called the decision to keep daycares open “one of the harder questions” in the coronavirus response effort.

He has consistently argued that closing daycares would cause more problems in the state’s response as parents, who may often be health care workers or first responders, would have to find childcare options or be forced to leave work. On Thursday, he issued an executive order loosening licensing regulations on child care centers do that temporary facilities could serve those essential workers.

In his letter to school districts, Carney noted that public health officials had not recommended closing schools.

In the same Monday webinar, Dr. Kara Walker, state secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services, reiterated that the CDC has not yet issued guidance in the closing of daycares, which primarily serve children from birth to 5 years old.

“We’re watching the CDC’s guidance on this issue very closely. Right now, they’re recommending that localities with less community spread – minimal to no community spread – to maintain business as usual as much as possible,” she said.

In remains to be seen whether the CDC will revise its guidance on daycares. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute on Allergens and Infectious Diseases, said during a Tuesday press conference at the White House that federal officials had only issued advisories on schools but added that it they would “go back and discuss that in some detail about whether or not [daycares are] equivalent to school.”

Jennifer Horney, Ph.D., is director of the University of Delaware’s epidemiology program. | PHOTO COURTESY OF UD

For Jennifer Horney, founding director of the University of Delaware’s epidemiology program, the lone bit of research into COVID-19’s impact on children seems to support the public officials’ current stance. A study published this week in the medical journal Pediatrics of more than 2,100 children infected with the coronavirus in Chinese province of Hubei, the epicenter of the virus’s outbreak, found that about 90% either showed no symptoms, or mild or moderate ones.

“I think this study gives us some hard data to inform these decisions about keeping childcare open,” Horney told Delaware Business Times.

Daycares are also better prepared to fight coronavirus than most businesses, as they have policies in place to protect the children from a number of different viruses, like RSV or hand, foot and mouth disease.

“I think that they’re uniquely prepared in a sense because they are at risk for outbreaks in a regular situation,” she said. “So, they may be able to just sort of step up those typical precautions a little bit more.”

Horney agreed with the governor’s position that daycares were integral to keeping essential workforce in place while addressing a pandemic. She said that studies following the 2009 H1N1 outbreak found that roughly half of healthcare workers indicated they may not report to work out of concern of bringing the virus home to their families.

As of Thursday afternoon, at least three states – Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Vermont – have ordered day care centers to close while also keeping some centers open for “essential” personnel, like health care workers. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has placed a 50-child and 10-staff member limit on its daycares.

What the economic impact of a statewide closure of daycares in Delaware would be is unknown. A new study on the nationwide impact of a monthlong school and daycare closure, however, estimated the impact at more than $50 billion.

That study, authored by Joshua Epstein, a professor of epidemiology at the New York University School of Global Health, and Ross Hammond, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brooking Institution and an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, also estimated a three-month closure to cost the U.S. more than $150 billion.

Tegan Chmiel, a teacher’s aide, cleans toys at Kidz Ink IV in Bear on Thursday. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

For now, daycare owner Kitson is caught between the two sides.

Parents who choose to keep their children at home are still paying tuition, and most of her parents understand that revenue is needed to keep on teachers and pay for the additional necessary cleaning. Kitson said she moved several part-time housekeepers to full-time in order to institute additional cleaning. About 10% of families have withdrawn their children altogether in order to stop paying tuition, Kitson said.

“Rather than sending our staff home because attendance is lower than usual, we’ve kept our teachers on and they’re helping clean alongside the housekeepers,” she added.

Like all daycares statewide, Kidz Ink locations have removed all toys that cannot be cleaned, like stuffed animals and dress-up clothing, and have been cleaning all other toys daily. Kidz Ink has also instituted policies to limit adults’ time in the centers and asked anyone experiencing symptoms to not enter. Kitson has also been writing a letter home to parents explaining their efforts every few days.

Kitson is doing what she can to reassure her employees in these trying times, allowing several pregnant and older employees to stay at home. She said that she feels lucky in that most of her parents are understanding and expressing their gratitude, offering to bring in resources needed to clean.

Nada Horne, administrator of Kidz Ink IV, works in the center Thursday where cleaner has become a ubiquitous item. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

“We have parents who are police officers, firefighters, etc. I had a single mom who works at Royal Farms stop me the other day just to say, ‘Thank you for being open. My job said I could take off if I needed to, but I need the full-time hours,’” Kitson said.

As a business owner contending with falling revenues and an uncertain future, however, Kitson said that she felt less supported by the government.

“The federal government is going to bail out the airlines and cruise ships – the big businesses – but for the small businesses, they’re saying we can take a loan, which of course has to be repaid,” she said. “This is going to leave a lasting impact on our business for a long, long time.”

By Jacob Owens

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1 Comment

  1. avatar
    Nurse in Delaware April 2, 2020

    My neighbors run a daycare, they are both senior citizens and have health issues. If the children’s parents are essential workers, no doubt they are exposing their children yo the virus and then these kids play together in large groups, sharing toys etc. I know this because they let the kids run wild outside, barely supervised. So much for social distance. It may be detrimental to the parents to have daycare close, but it has been detrimental to everyone to loose their jobs. Nothing will be more detrimental than getting the virus. These parents are to blame so are the greedy daycare operators.

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