Answering Your Questions About Childcare

As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day.

Today we're looking at childcare and daycare with Gina Fromer, CEO of the Children's Council of San Francisco and Kim Kruckel, Executive Director of the Child Care Law Center in Berkeley.

Let me just ask you Gina a real quick question, are you able to stay on top - I noticed on the website for example, you literally are listing day by day who's open, who's not, who they can take and so on - that's a lot. 

GF: Yeah, we're working in collaboration with the city and county of San Francisco on these providers to make sure the list is up to date daily. Each county has an R&R (resource and referral) and families should look on their websites to see who's open. And again, it's fluctuating every day because on June 2nd for example, we had a surge of providers that reopened. And so I would recommend checking out the websites.

And that's San Francisco-specific. Do you know of other operations like this that are being run in other counties?

GF: Oh absolutely. So Bananas in Oakland, 4Cs of Alameda County, and children', you can check Sonoma County. Each county has an R&R website and so they can look on there and find the up-to-date sites that are open.

Sounds good. And let me bring in our second guest, Kim Kruckel. I say it every morning, we're in unprecedented times, but the issues that have come up around childcare and daycare in particular, with the questions of safety and all of that, you must be working 24/7.

KK: We are. Because every single day, county health departments as well as state agencies are issuing new guidelines and new regulations, as are our partners at the Child Care Resource Center who are trying to give the information directly to parents and providers. And I want to say, it has been very confusing for parents and for providers. Which rules do I have to follow? The state? The county? The city? It's hard to know where to turn. 

We're going to get into some questions, which have been sent in by listeners to Let me ask you this one first, Gina: if my childcare provider is now closed but I still have to work, what do I do with my child?

GF: That's a really great question and again, there are sites - the Department of Children and Families has listings up, each county has a site that people can go to. But you know, pick up the phone and ask your providers. The providers are keeping up to date with these lists as well. For example, at Children's Council, we have people on standby on the phone that if a parent calls in or a provider calls in, they can find out the latest and greatest of what's happening. Parents are just worried, they don't have a place to go. They're calling the cities and counties to find out this information and so I'm hoping that if they do have questions they can contact providers that they know, county sites, reach out to the local R&R's in their community.

And when you say R&R, just to make sure we understand the terminology, what's that mean?

GF: Childcare resource and referral agencies.

Okay, good to know. Next question: do I need to get tested for my child to attend a care center, and if so, how often?

KK: Right now, neither community care licenses nor public health departments require children to be tested before going to childcare. But if you are a person in a high risk category or you feel like you've been exposed, it can't hurt. It's also possible that a childcare program may ask people to be tested. There's nothing really stopping them from doing that, but it's not a requirement by either local or state law.

What process will be used to screen children as they come in each day? Pickup, drop-off, how's this going to work?

GF: It's complicated because you know, normally kids are high-touch and very intimate and nurturing and they get nurtured. Right now it's being done very carefully, parents have to crack their windows, answer screening questions, they let their kids off at the door. In this pandemic it's been very different. And children are very resilient, but they are going to have to adapt to this and it's very complicated right now, how the regulations are saying that children have to be separate, parents cannot come to the door and no nurturing or intimacy at this point. Which is just a little complicated, children don't understand that. They're touchy-feely, you know? They need that.

And I've had this question asked in several different forms. In daycare centers, are children being kept apart? They can't touch each other?

GF: Well, the standards - and Kim you can answer this as well - the standards are that they have to be in their own sections. Licensing has set some very specific things - first of all the numbers have gone down, you can only have 10 or less children in a space, which means that that gives them more room for children to be in individualized, Montessori-type individual sections of a space. For example, what used to be a little STEM center or reading corner might now be a space for an individual child, to create more space between children.

KK: Exactly. And that's why having additional staff to help entertain and engage children is even more important right now. Childcare programs are being instructed to keep kids in as small of a group as possible, and to try to keep them within the social distancing guidelines that we've all become so familiar with, keep them six feet apart. So that's what they'll try to do, and that's why they need more staffing.

I can drop the child off, my concern would be about the health and safety of the childcare workers. Are they being tested, are they under some protocols that are different from those of the general public?

KK: The childcare workforce, their actions are regulated by the same rules as any business in the state. So it is going to depend, county by county. But the childcare workers do have to wear masks, for example, and gloves in certain situations. They're going to be following a lot of cleaning and disinfecting protocols and of course just like everybody else, they cannot come to work if they are sick or exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19 or have fear that they might have been exposed. So they will be following all of the same procedures and protocols of any business and they'll be just as concerned as any parent is about staying healthy.

I worked for several years in the infant room (6 weeks to 2 years old) at a wonderful child development center. There is absolutely no way to stay six feet apart. We've giving bottles, helping with self-feeding, changing diapers, cuddling and soothing, playing and often rocking them to sleep. How are childcare facilities that offer infant care supposed to function? Infants put everything in their mouths especially when teething, they definitely need us wipe drippy noses, they don't know how to turn their heads or cover their mouth when coughing and sneezing, and what about the drooling?

GF: Yeah, that's a tough one and I want to just say very creatively, reducing as much risk as possible. Separating rooms that used to be specific areas, limiting contact with smaller groups to only one teacher. We know that transmission between children is very low but there's no way to completely mitigate risk. Providers are working extremely hard to protect the children and themselves. I think more staff and spaces as well helps with that. But yeah, the task is to minimize the risk as much as possible and to be as creative as possible in doing that.

Both of you mentioned more staff and more space. Maybe it's time for a question from me about, who's going to pay for that? Are we looking at any programs, any initiatives that would expand the availability and staffing levels?

KK: There are some bills in Congress that we really need our Congresspeople to pass. One is the HEROES Act, the other is called the Childcare is Essential Act. And in fact, both of these are absolutely essential if we want our economy to recover. Because we're seeing and hearing today, people can not go back to work without childcare. And childcare cannot operate safely and healthily without enough people to work there. So we really need Congress to step up and pass these relief packages. Childcare has not really - our state has been doing some great work for childcare but Congress has not been doing enough to help fund childcare providers, workers and families. Would you agree Gina?

GF: I agree, and the other side of that, Stan, is that these are businesses and when you have had 30 kids in your center and you're down to 15, that is where the space comes in. You've been able to create more space, but can you actually function? Is this business at risk of closing now, because they're not able to pay their admin fees and all the things that are connected to them staying open because they have reduced the number of kids down. So it's a quagmire and families and providers are finding themselves in it. But people are figuring it out, and we're working really hard with them closely. The cities are working with providers to figure this out. These loans have come into play and Kim maybe you can talk about the PPP loans that some of these businesses have been able to get, but it is very tough and there's no question about it.

KK: Yeah, childcare providers should be available for PPP loans. They're a little bit harder to get, but if anybody's listening and needs to contact the Child Care Law Center, we'll help you, try and guide you to the right sources for help there. But they definitely do need more financial assistance in order to keep everybody safe.

Okay, next question. I found out there's a kid currently in quarantine in my toddler's preschool. How long should I wait before I send my child back to that preschool?

GF: Hmm, that is a good question.

And this feels like the kind of question we're going to be hearing a lot of as more people return.

KK: Yeah and we've recently experienced this at different levels in different counties. Each provider has their own rules, but there are guidelines from the Department of Public Health that say if a child is at risk, that center is shut down, everybody has to be tested before that center reopens. So those guidelines are really strict license enhanced guidelines, as well as the Department of Public Health that has put out universal county-wide guidelines around, if a child has COVID, tested positive, that center is shut down for 14 days and everybody has to be tested before they come back; teachers as well as families.

I can only imagine the uproar then for every family whose child now has to find another place for the next 14 days and this is the part that seems so overwhelming.

This next question: we're a school with four class groups within a large space. I've read that the space must be divided so that air doesn't circulate between groups. What do we have to use to avoid air circulation? Is a five foot divider enough? Eight feet? Where does one start?

GF: Yeah that's a hard one there. Kim, do you have any answer to that?

KK: Actually the Alameda County Public Health Department has an FAQ on their website and they do address specific questions like that. I think each county's health department does have a specific page for childcare, so I'm sorry I don't know the answer right off the top of my head.

Some of this stuff is findable, it's not always as easy to find as we would like it to be, but if you dive into these county public health website and spend a little time poking around you often will find this information. Somewhere in there you might find it, right?

KK: Yes, definitely. Also people can go to our website and click on "get help", and type any question and we will direct people to the right place.

Next one: my church runs a childcare program. We're planning to open July 1 with all of the proper sanitation procedures as described by our county. Are we liable if a child gets COVID-19?

KK: The thing about running a childcare program is that childcare operators do have a duty to keep the children in their care safe. And that is their responsibility as a business. Anytime you have a duty, there is a possibility that you will be pursued for liability, I mean you are responsible to keep kids safe. What we tell people, what we tell childcare providers is that you must follow all of the safety guidelines issued by your county health department, your childcare licensing and the Centers for Disease Control. Follow the guidelines, children are less likely to contract the disease. It also means that you're acting responsibly, and you're doing everything in your power to prevent the spread of disease. This will help people show that they're following their duty of care to the utmost of their ability. 

This next one is sort of a broader question, one that is on people's minds when they hear about masks. Will masks interfere with children's ability to read facial expressions and stunt their language development?

GF: Absolutely! Yes, by age 5 90% of the brain development happens and they're losing valuable time. We know children are resilient and we can make up for that lost time. I think again, it comes down to being creative and innovative. I've seen providers draw on the masks and use those as art pieces, and the kids get so excited about them and they come in with a different one, and they're coloring them. So it becomes part of their day, and part of their routine. A colorful fun mask with eyes on it or different art becomes part of what a kid loves and so they're being very innovative and creative, but yes it interferes with all of that. Children are very visual and when you see your teacher smiling and happy, children are happy and smiling. But with the mask it's hard, so draw a happy face on your mask and children will respond to that as well. 

That's great advice, I may do that around here. Everyone thinks I'm scowling at them all the time, but I'm just wearing a mask. 

Here's another one: our children have been in the Berkeley Unified after school program. Right now, not only do we not know what school's going to like in the fall, we don't know about the after school program. Do you know when these decisions are going to be made?

GF: That's a good question. Every county is different and I can speak for San Francisco, particularly the Department of Children and Families, Rec and Parks and different counties - again I hate to say the website, but they've made these FAQs. And very much during COVID, it's easier to get a response, more people responding virtually, by phone. Pick up the phone and call and just ask. And if you call us on our hotline, we will definitely refer you to where you need to go even if it's in another county. We're all in this together and we want to make sure children have what they need to be successful, even though it's summer. And again, Rec and Park, different YMCA's, definitely the YCMA of Oakland, give them a call. They can help you with all of this. 

And am I wrong in thinking that I'm hearing a lot of places are doing summer outdoor recreation programs? Which is a great option because you're outdoors, for starters.

GF: Yes, the department of public health is saying that's the better option because air, space, it's easier to social distance. Soccer programs, they're getting a lot more play because they are outdoors.

KK: Yeah and I'll just add that the summer camps in Alameda County, they are really encouraging those. And groups of 10 or 12 kids can stay together for up to three weeks; that is what we now call a "social bubble". And kids can stay in that bubble for three weeks, so that's three weeks of camp where they can be with the same group of kids plus the camp instructors. 


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.