Is it safe for a baby or toddler to go to day care during the pandemic? Pasadena mom Katrina Frye has been asking this question since the summer, as her bubbly baby grew into an extroverted toddler.
The Fryes, Katrina and her husband Jordan, are both freelancers in the creative arts. They lost work when the pandemic shut everything down, yet they relished the time at home with their new baby, Wyland. But as the weeks turned into months, the couple needed to work to pay the bills.
“We can't work, which means we can't bring in income, which means we can't pay our bills if we don't have child care,” Frye said.
As the couple began accepting new jobs and tried various scenarios of splitting up work and parenting, the idea of having Wyland in a stimulating environment with other children was enticing.
They found a center they liked, called The Journey Begins, in Highland Park. The Fryes asked director Michele Masjedi many questions, they watched the school’s new video on COVID-19 safety protocols, and felt reassured.
When the couple told family and friends about enrolling Wyland into a day care center, they received mixed responses. Some were kind and understanding, but there were some questions about whether they were making the right choice.
“I think the kicker was really actually our last pediatrician [who] just didn't think it was a good idea,” Frye said.
She wishes elected and public health officials provided clearer guidance on what to do for early care for children under age 5.
“On a government level, federally, statewide, countywide, no one is speaking to parents with infants or toddlers,” Frye said.
Child care facilities were deemed essential in the early days of the pandemic and were never ordered closed. Yet many did close as parents quickly pulled children out when the Safer At Home order came. Over the summer many early care programs began reopening. There are strict COVID-19 safety protocols they must follow.
Yet there was no corresponding message to parents that it was safe and appropriate to send children back. While the guidance for sending older children back to school is unequivocal — just don’t do it, keep them learning from home — for those under 5 things aren’t so clear.
Despite repeated requests to the LA County public health department for an interview, they did not provide a spokesperson.
Like many early childhood programs, The Journey Begins Infant and Toddler Center closed in the spring. It finally reopened in September, said director Michele Masjedi.
“A huge challenge from the pandemic has been enrollment,” Masjedi said, noting that she always had a long waiting list of families before COVID-19. “It was very difficult to enroll [children] once we opened school … because of parents' concerns and fears.”
She thinks there is a stigma for parents choosing to send their child back. “Out in the world, on the news, is [the message] that you should stay home.”
So Masjedi created her own materials for parents, including a video and Powerpoint presentation. Since she opened, there has not been any COVID infection among her staff or children.
Her newly implemented protocols include temperature and wellness checks just inside the front gate, and parents hand off children right there. They are not allowed inside the center. Children have a set of indoor and outdoor shoes which they switch between, and there is plenty of hand washing throughout the day. She hired extra staff so children are in small groups. Masjedi also requires that families sign a contract promising good pandemic behavior outside of school hours.
The children are too young to wear masks. LA County deems it unsafe for children under 2. However the teachers are masked at all times.
Yet it is impossible to always keep the children six feet apart.
“In snack time, lunch time, nap time, [and] activities like painting, we can physically distance the children quite easily,” Masjedi said. “But children are going to touch each other, and we never want to have a scenario where we're saying things like ‘that's not okay,’ or ‘you need to stay away from your friend.’ That is the exact opposite of what we want children to experience.”
On a recent Tuesday morning, the center thrummed with joyful squeals and nursery rhymes. “Even in the best of circumstances, no matter how many activities you can do at home and how many songs you can sing, you can't replicate what we do in group care,” Masjedi said. “Do you think it's safer to bring your child to care where we have all of these safety and health practices in place, or is it better to make a quick trip to Target or a supermarket?”
Preschool and early care center directors across the county told KCRW that they have had to go to great lengths to convince prospective parents that their facility is as safe from COVID-19 transmission as can possibly be.
Toni Boucher, director of the Altadena Children's Center wishes there was a public campaign that’s similar to one from a few years ago — Talk Read Sing — with radio PSAs and billboard ads to educate parents on how to stimulate the brain of a young child.
“I've not seen anything on the news or any PSA-type information to let parents know you don't have to be at home with your kids struggling because a child care facility is one of the safest places you can probably take your child,” said Jennifer Carter, executive director of Oaktree Learning Center in San Bernardino.
Since the pandemic began through September 30, there have been 2,802 COVID-19 cases connected to child care centers across California. That’s less than 1% of all the states’ more than 800,000 cases. In San Bernardino, there have been 33 cases connected to child care centers. Statewide, children under 5 make up 2.2% of all the state’s COVID-19 cases, and there haven't been any deaths in this age group.
Carter said many of her parents work low wage jobs, and they don’t have the luxury to think about whether or not to send their child back. One of her moms was facing eviction because she was not an essential worker. “It's either figure out how to fight this landlord or just go to work and pay her rent so that she can be sure that she and her children have somewhere to stay,” Carter said.
To work, parents need child care and Carter said her parents have embraced sending their children back, she said. “They look at us as partners in their child's growth and development, and they trust their kids with us because we're all like their aunts and grandmas,” she added.
“The wealth gap makes it very clear that this is very much a class issue,” said Pasadena mom Katrina Frye.
Frye said during the pandemic, her friends in higher income brackets have paid to hold down a child care spot while keeping their child at home. Others pulled their kids from day care and hired full-time private nannies. She couldn’t afford to do either.
But when Frye thinks about her son having fun with other kids at day care, she feels like he is in the best place he can be besides home. Especially right now, when, as a Black mother, she has other worries for Wyland.
“Here in Pasadena, after Anthony McClain was shot in the back in his own neighborhood, I definitely fear walking. It's been exhausting,” Frye said. “I think even more [this] makes day care essential for us because we want to know he's inside this space, the huge, nice gated community, you know, that Michelle has created at The Journey Begins, with teachers who care about him — feeding him, hugging him, making sure he’s napping, playing outside.”
Frye believes they made the right decision. “[Day care] has been a little bit of rejuvenation into humanity that we had really lost in our house,” Frye said.
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Deepa Fernandes is an early childhood reporting fellow at Pacific Oaks College, which is funded in part by First 5 LA.