Photo: Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
First grade students put their arms out to ensure distancing during Freedom School, a summer academic enrichment program for Marin County students held at Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in Marin City.

Some California students may find themselves in child care this fall in the very same classrooms they are barred from entering for in-person instruction.

In an effort to meet the needs of working families, school districts in coronavirus hot spots across California are reopening classrooms as child care sites. But the contradictory rules for child care and in-person instruction has some parents questioning how one is safer than the other.

Schools in counties with high numbers of new coronavirus cases or hospitalizations cannot open for in-person classes until the counties have been off the state monitoring list for two weeks. Child care programs, on the other hand, can open across the state, even in coronavirus hot spots, as long as they meet health and safety guidelines.

“Child care licensing standards distinguish those programs from schools,” wrote the California Department of Public Health’s public affairs staff in an email to EdSource. “Additionally, child care is in smaller groups and cohorts, and typically brings together fewer families and children per site on average compared to schools.”

Asked whether on-site child care is safer than in-school instruction, state health officials said they are “learning more every day” about Covid-19.

“These guidelines and considerations are based on the most current available public health data, which does not indicate that either setting is safer than the other at this time,” the email said.

“Why is a gathering of kids and an adult in a room acceptable if we call it ‘child care,’ and not acceptable if that adult is a teacher, and we call it ‘class?’” said Todd Maddison, a parent and school board candidate in Oceanside Unified in San Diego County.

Many of the child care programs districts are offering are through parks and recreation agencies or through organizations that previously offered after-school programs. Groups are being kept at 10 to 15 children, depending on the district. Most in-person classes would likely be a similar size, in order to keep children 6 feet apart, though there are no specific maximum numbers for in-classroom instruction. Overall, though, there might be fewer people on a school campus for child care, because fewer classrooms would be utilized than if a full campus were to open for school.

In some cases, for example, in Glendale Unified in Los Angeles County, child care is free and targeted for low-income students. The city of San Francisco is partnering with nonprofit organizations to offer child care to low-income students. Los Angeles Unified is offering child care only to the children of teachers and other staff, with the hope of expanding that to more children once it begins a hybrid model of in-person learning, in which students split their time between distance learning and in-person instruction.

Several other school districts are charging a fee. South Pasadena Unified is offering a day care program at one TK-8 school at a cost of $210 per week. San Carlos School District in San Mateo County, south of San Francisco, is charging $1,750 per month.

“Why is a gathering of kids and an adult in a room acceptable if we call it ‘child care,’ and not acceptable if that adult is a teacher, and we call it ‘class?’” asked Todd Maddison, a parent and school board candidate in Oceanside Unified in San Diego County. The district has said it will give priority for child care to the children of first responders and health care workers and will enroll other students if there is enough space.

Advocates for child care providers say there has been a longtime disparity between child care workers and teachers: providers are paid substantially less and, until last month, did not have a union to advocate for them. Teachers’ unions have advocated for schools not to open until the number of new cases goes down. A recent survey from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley found that child care providers are also very concerned about the risks to their health, but they are opening because they cannot afford to stay closed.

“Our nation has prioritized the economy and employment over keeping us all healthy and safe. Child care is open because providers need money and, according to those in power, aren’t worthy of a bailout,” said Keisha Nzewi, director of public policy for the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, a nonprofit organization that represents agencies statewide that help parents find child care and help child care providers get training and support. “The weekly Covid report we get from child care licensing shows that small group size doesn’t mean Covid doesn’t spread.”

There were 1,726 cases of the coronavirus reported among child care facility staff, children and family members statewide, as of Aug. 6.

 The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health wrote that child care is essential for working parents, adding, “There are risks in both settings; obviously, risks are magnified when there are larger numbers of students, teachers and staff in a shared building.” Several other county public health departments deferred to state health guidelines.

“For the kids who are most at risk for extreme disconnection and learning loss and mental health challenges, we absolutely should be finding ways to provide in-person support for those kids,” said Jennifer Peck, president and CEO of Partnership for Children and Youth,

Most school districts contacted by EdSource did not respond to interview requests.

“SFUSD is happy low-income families and students have more options to get support while engaging in distance learning taught by SFUSD teachers,” wrote San Francisco Unified spokeswoman Laura Dudnick.

A spokesman for the California Department of Education referred EdSource to the California Department of Public Health.

Some advocates say child care is not only critical for parents who need to work, but also can be important for students whose parents cannot help them as much with schoolwork because they do not speak English, have less schooling, have to work outside the home, are living in extreme poverty or are homeless.

“For the kids who are most at risk for extreme disconnection and learning loss and mental health challenges, we absolutely should be finding ways to provide in-person support for those kids,” said Jennifer Peck, president and CEO of Partnership for Children and Youth, an organization that advocates for more investment in after-school and summer learning programs. The organization just released a report calling for school districts to work with after-school and summer learning program staff to support students during the pandemic.

Two health experts said the benefits of providing child care have to be weighed against the potential health risks, particularly to adults working in schools or child care programs and children’s families.

“My fear is the role of schools in being an engine or catalyst for a broader outbreak,” said Andrew Noymer, epidemiologist and associate professor of public health at UC Irvine. “At the same time, I understand that parents very often need to get to work themselves, so we’re putting parents in a major bind by canceling school. So we’re kind of between a rock and a hard place here. I could argue again from the other hand that if a kid’s parent dies, that’s worse for their welfare than being kept at home.”

Noymer and Naomi Bardach, a doctor and associate professor of pediatrics and health policy at UC San Francisco, both said child care on a school site could potentially be safer than opening a whole school for in-person classes if there are fewer people on campus overall. For example, one or two small groups of children on a school campus, with one or two adults for each group, is safer than every classroom open for small groups.

“Most schools have hundreds to sometimes thousands of people coming together on one campus,” Bardach said. “Even in our best approaches and our best attempts at small stable cohorts, in that setting, you’re still bringing together a large amount of people. The difference with learning hubs is that they’re smaller groups that don’t have as many people coming in.”

However, she added, “Do I think the science supports that learning pods are going to be that much safer? I honestly don’t think we have the science at all to tell us that.”

In order to open in the safest way possible, Bardach emphasized that child care programs have to follow health and safety guidelines, such as screening for symptoms, wearing masks, staying at least 6 feet apart, washing hands frequently, making sure there is good ventilation indoors and keeping groups as small as possible. Each county public health department has set a maximum number of children in child care, typically around 10 to 12.

She said the same is true for the “learning pods” parents across the country are setting up to share child care and allow students to study together and socialize.

“The same public health principles that are key to reopening schools are still going to be key to having safe pods and safe day care settings,” Bardach said. “No matter who you are, and no matter what solution you’re reaching for, please stick with these public health principles, because these are the ones that we know are key to keeping the virus under control.”

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  1. Sandy Graystone 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Wow. Keisha Nzewi thinks its about money and not children? More like it's about unions trying to push for their teachers to stay home. It has been proven over and over again that this virus does not pose a great risk to children and most adults (99% survival rate). Numbers do not lie and neither does the science. Yes, parents have to work! And more importantly, children need to get an education and virtual learning … Read More

    Wow. Keisha Nzewi thinks its about money and not children? More like it’s about unions trying to push for their teachers to stay home. It has been proven over and over again that this virus does not pose a great risk to children and most adults (99% survival rate). Numbers do not lie and neither does the science.

    Yes, parents have to work! And more importantly, children need to get an education and virtual learning is a circus no matter how much unions try to say it’s working!

  2. Ana McClintock 1 month ago1 month ago

    Completely inconsistent and makes no sense. Why allow in person after-school care, day care, summer camps (with teenagers supervising!!) and not allow schools that can open with small classes outdoors or smaller groups that can wear masks and distance? There have been no outbreaks reported at summer camps or day care in our city. Absolutely ridiculous

  3. Rory Livingston 2 months ago2 months ago

    This is not new, the oxymoronic behavior was put in place last March. Schools were closed but had to provide childcare for “essential workers” if needed, for the very same students who were denied access to their school. This situation continues to defy logic.

  4. BF 2 months ago2 months ago

    Absolutely ridiculous! There’s no reason small schools should not be able to seek a waiver when these childcare programs are permitted to operate. Contra Costa County is allowing childcare but will not even consider a waiver even for tiny private schools – how is this just?