What Day Cares Can Expect When They Reopen

As states relax quarantine restrictions, returning to work will mean returning kids to child care

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie June 9, 2020
kids playing

​If this were a normal year, Diane Smalley would have 112 children enrolled in her Creative Play School day care in Alexandria, Va.

But this isn't a normal year. With the coronavirus forcing most workers to shelter in place for the better part of three months—or costing workers their jobs altogether—Smalley counts only 20 children in her classrooms.

Caring for those 20 kids, who range in age from 16 months to 10 years and whose parents are mostly essential workers who can't do their jobs remotely, has proved a sort of blueprint for what other day care centers can expect to face when they reopen.

"There's a lot I've learned through the crisis," said Smalley, owner of Creative Play School, which for decades has operated out of a church in Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood. "The important thing is to keep communicating information to staff so they know what best practices are and to continue to communicate with families."

In coming weeks, Virginia—as well as many other states—could relax its quarantine orders, allowing more employees to return to the workplace. And that means many will need to return their children to day care centers that will undoubtedly be altered given the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam began Phase1 of the commonwealth's reopening May 15. Phase 2 started June 5, but Northern Virginia, where Alexandria is located, remains in the first phase due to higher rates of COVID-19 infections.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines for how day care centers should operate during the pandemic, but those centers are first bound by their state dictates. While Virginia officials did not require day care centers to close during the coronavirus pandemic, many closed regardless. The commonwealth, however, did limit the number of people in a day care room to 10, including staff.

Smalley kept Creative Play School open by relying on a loan provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that helps her pay rent, utilities and her workers. Her experience during the past three months may help other day care mangers know what to expect when they reopen.


guidelines for daycare reopenings

Temperatures, Distancing and Sanitizing

Reopened day care centers will likely take each child's temperature when he or she is dropped off, as now happens at Creative Play School. Parents and visitors aren't allowed inside.

Be prepared for smaller class sizes, Smalley advised. This will be necessary for social distancing purposes, which is particularly hard to enforce among small children. In rooms with very young children, government officials may even require fewer than 10 children per class.

"It's much more challenging to do social distancing with young children; it requires ongoing supervision," Smalley said.

Claudette Haynes, who has a Ph.D. in education, is director of the Abracadabra day care center in Alexandria, Va. Because Haynes' center follows the guidelines for Alexandria city schools, it's been shut down since mid-March. Her 76 enrolled children have had to find other accommodations. While there's currently no firm reopening date, Haynes is hoping for July 1.

"We will have to be very creative, and it's going to be interesting to see," Haynes said of social distancing among young children. For instance, for safety reasons, children are typically required to hold hands with a buddy during outdoor walks. "Now we're told we can't do that," she said.

At Creative Play School, children no longer share crayons or scissors; they have their own supplies that they keep in a labeled plastic bag.

While mask wearing is the norm among adults, it isn't in a day care center with small children, Smalley said. Teachers wear them, but not necessarily all kids. This is a government guideline designed to prevent younger children from being strangled by masks.

Hand-washing and hand sanitizers have always been routine activities at day care centers, Haynes said, although during the virus, their use, as well as cleaning of the facility, will be far more frequent once Abracadabra reopens. Bathrooms must be wiped down after each use.

"We don't want to use a lot of aerosol sprays, so we would wipe down seats and sanitize the sink," she said. "We'll have to up our training for staff and children to try to keep all of us as safe as possible."

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Eating Etiquette

Many day care centers typically offer family-style meals, during which children serve themselves from common bowls of food. Abracadabra may switch to individually packed meals for each child so there would be no sharing of utensils or serving dishes, Haynes said. And while as many as 10 children typically sit around one lunch table, she said, state guidelines may dictate that no more than two kids do so—one at either end.

"So how many tables do we have to have?" she asks. "These are some of the things we have to rethink."

As more people return to work, there could be a surge in demand for child care, Smalley noted. But with the distancing requirements, "it could also be a nightmare."

"Right now, class sizes are limited to 10 people, and that includes the teachers, so if there was a surge [in demand], you might find yourself as a parent in a situation without child care."

Haynes already has a waiting list of parents who want their children to attend Abracadabra once it reopens. How many she can admit, she said, "depends on what the guidelines will say." She added, "We're hoping we can accommodate everyone."

For now, both women are in close contact with the Virginia governor's office, Virginia's Department of Social Services and the CDC.

"It's a very stressful time for families and for programs that are trying to stay alive," Smalley said. "And I think that there have been some [news] articles that hit the nail on the head: If we don't support child care programs now, there may not be child care programs when you're ready to go back to work." 

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