Walk into a California preschool during the coronavirus pandemic, and you might see children playing alone inside their own hula hoop.
Gone are family-style meals and snacks where children serve themselves. And no more sharing toys.
Some of the state’s new guidelines for child care facilities, like keeping children six feet apart, seem at odds with the main goal of early education, which is focused on helping children feel safe and loved, and learn to play and talk with both other children and adults.
“All their years here, we’ve been teaching them to work together, play together,” said Gerardo Soto, site supervisor at the Lindbergh Child Development Center, which serves children ages 2 to 5 in Costa Mesa in Orange County. “Now we’re doing the complete opposite.”
Soto and other preschool and child care providers are finding creative ways to keep their programs as safe as possible, while also meeting children’s developmental needs.
When the state first ordered residents to shelter in place, child care was allowed only for essential workers, but now all children can attend. In order to reopen, child care facilities have to submit a plan that shows how they will follow new health and safety guidelines from the California Department of Public Health, county departments of public health and the California Department of Social Services to lower the risk of spreading Covid-19 among staff, children and their families.
Staff from the California Department of Social Services Community Care Licensing Division, which oversees child care programs, are holding video calls with providers to see how they are following the guidelines and to give advice and suggestions.
The new public health guidelines call for staff and children’s temperatures to be checked every morning before they enter. Children have to be kept in small groups of 10 or fewer, and the same group of children has to be kept with the same teachers every day. Even within those small groups, the guidelines recommend teachers try to keep children six feet away from each other when possible, using string, tape or furniture to mark off areas for children to play alone. Adults and children older than 2 years old should wear masks, if possible. Toys have to be sanitized after being used, and hands should be washed throughout the day.
At the Menifee Child Development Center in Riverside County, children choose what they want to play with each morning and put it in their own bin. After they are done playing, they put the toys they played with in another bin for the teachers to disinfect later. Teachers are trying to minimize hugging, so each morning they ask their students to choose how they want their teacher to say hello — with an air high five, an air hug or a thumbs up.
Children can’t climb on the play structure outside anymore, so instead they are spending time taking care of plants and watching a hummingbird make a nest in a tree. Inside, only one child is allowed at a time in the area where they can build with blocks and the dramatic play area, where children used to play together with dolls or pretend to cook in a kitchen.
Site supervisor Rachel Smith said teachers have explained to the preschoolers why the new guidelines exist, and children are finding new ways to play together.
“They’ve actually chosen a lot more manipulatives lately and art materials because they want to interact. They know if they sit across the table from a friend, they can both play with Legos, but not sitting side by side,” Smith said. “It’s interesting to see that they’re making different choices than they typically would play with.”
But not touching or hugging at all is impractical when caring for young children. Providers say they may be able to wear gloves to change diapers or help children go to the toilet, but there are many other situations in which they need to touch or comfort children.
“That’s the whole key — we are making your child have a home away from home. Children need to socialize. They may need to cuddle a little because they feel afraid, or they’re having a moment,” said Vernetta Buckner, who runs a family child care program in her home in Richmond. “We’re here to nurture and care for children. The government doesn’t have a realistic view of what that looks like.”
Carolyn Carpenter, who runs Bloomers Preschool out of her home in Oakland, said she held one 2-year-old girl on her lap for two hours on her first day back because the child was crying so much after being home for two and a half months.
“I can’t leave a crying child on their own,” Carpenter said.
It is unclear whether child care is particularly high-risk for spreading Covid-19. There have been 202 cases of Covid-19 and no deaths among child care staff, children and parents and guardians as of June 4, according to the California Department of Social Services. As of May 31, there were 33,411 open child care facilities, according to the department. Children often do not get as sick as adults with Covid-19, but research varies on whether they are just as contagious and can infect adults around them.
Carpenter knows there is a risk of getting Covid-19, especially when caring for the children of first responders. The little girl who Carpenter comforted has a father who works in an intensive care unit at a hospital and cares for patients infected with the coronavirus.
“There has been encouragement to stay open this entire time from everyone, whether or not it’s safe,” Carpenter said. “Honestly, a lot of child care providers are older women with health issues. It’s not necessarily safe.”
At first, Carpenter kept her preschool closed, but she said she could not stay closed forever and some of her families needed care, so she is following the guidelines as closely as she can to reduce the risk of Covid-19. The children play outside most of the day, and she has all of her windows open to help ventilate inside. She and everyone else in her family wears a mask when they are around the children. She’s found some fun mask designs that the kids like — rainbows, narwhals, unicorns, Wonder Woman and Batman.
One day at snack time, she talked with the children about how they can still read her facial expressions by looking at the wrinkles around her eyes. She’s teaching the kids to show affection for each other in other ways, instead of hugging or wrestling.
“I have encouraged them to slow blink, like cats do,” Carpenter said.
Although many parents are still choosing to keep their children home, others don’t have that choice.
Micaela Mota is a mental health counselor for people who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes and a full-time student, studying to get master’s degrees in marriage family therapy and school psychology. She’s been sending her 1-year-old to a family child care home in Richmond, and since she is an essential worker, she was able to get a voucher from the state to pay for it.
“It’s been amazing. Like I don’t have that extra weight on me,” Mota said. “I’m able to work, and I’m able to focus. And my kid’s able to socialize, and that’s so important.”
The experiences of child care programs that have already opened are encouraging to some providers who are planning to reopen in the future. Holly Gold, owner of Rockridge Little School in Oakland, was appalled by the guidelines when she first saw them. She thought following them strictly might actually damage children psychologically. But since then, she has seen that many of the guidelines include the words “to the extent possible” and after talking with other providers, she has come up with a plan to open later this month.
“It’s not what it was, but it’s still something that can be great,” Gold said.
Lighthouse for Children, a preschool and child care program in Fresno for children under 5 years old, is slated to open in July. Director Lupe Jaime said it’s been overwhelming to weigh the risks and benefits.
“I think all of us across the board are feeling a really heavy feeling to ensure that we are meeting our health and safety guidelines and doing everything to minimize the exposure to Covid-19, but at the same time trying to honor our children and how they best learn,” Jaime said.
Now that they have a plan, though, Jaime said the entire staff is excited to see the children and families.
“We miss hearing the laughter and the children coming through the doors,” Jaime said.
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