COVID hits childcare centers — along with stress and burnout

    The Reach Dane location at Red Arrow Trail. Google screen capture.

    The recent COVID-19 surge is forcing the closure of many childcare centers — and not just due to cases in teachers and staff.

    “During the first round of COVID, we did not have much spread in childcare at all. Remarkably small considering what the numbers were in adults in Wisconsin,” said Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association (WECA). “We are just beginning to see … I don’t want to say it’s going to cascade, but we are just starting to see that it’s hitting more programs and the difference is it’s spreading very quickly through entire classrooms, entire programs among the kids.”

    Schmidt said WECA works with 20 childcare centers through a single program in Milwaukee, and three of those centers are currently closed due to COVID outbreaks.

    “I feel like this is the one area where we have so failed with COVID. Our kids can’t do anything about it. And it was adults that could have done something about it … it’s really unfortunate that it’s hitting kids as hard as it is right now,” Schmidt said.

    In Dane County, Reach Dane has had to close six of its 17 centers at some point over the past year and a half — some of those centers multiple times — due to positive tests. Executive Director Jen Bailey said that’s due in part to stringent measures adopted by the organization, which operates daycare as well as Headstart and 4K programs.

    “Staff have just done a really, really excellent job of following those” strict measures, which include masking, distancing, hygiene and testing. “We don’t believe we’ve had any cases of COVID being spread within our sites. It’s all folks that in their non-work lives, or kids have unfortunately picked up COVID. And then we have a pretty strict protocol of quarantine and shutdowns when that happens to prevent any spread.”

    Bailey said one center is currently closed for two weeks due to a single case of a vaccinated adult coming into contact with students for one hour before learning they had tested positive.

    “I think earlier this summer, we were all hoping to be able to have a more typical regular fall for the school year,” Bailey said. “And unfortunately in the last three weeks, and we see this in our community numbers in Dane County, we’ve seen multiple cases in staff and kids both. Our Head Start partners in Milwaukee are seeing this as well. Just the number of cases is increasing again.”

    And the pressure is on over the next few weeks as schools get back into session.

    “We’re bringing all of our kids back in person this fall. We’re not going to have a virtual program option,” Bailey said. “We have about the strictest, tightest health protocols that you can have, and we’re still seeing this. It’s a struggle, I think, for early childhood programs because none of our children are eligible to be vaccinated. So you have a huge pool of little ones that just don’t have that option yet.”

    That’s all the more reason for adults to get the vaccine, Schmidt said.

    “I think that’s critically important,” she said. “We do need adults to be vaccinated in order to keep kids under the age of 12 safe because they don’t have an option for vaccines. So that’s absolutely part of it, a huge part of it.”

    Keeping up with other mitigation measures is important too, said Reach Dane teacher Celie Frederickson.

    “The second they leave here, we’re not sure. You know, you go home and every home is different,” she said. “I just wish and hope that all of our students are living healthy and happy lives when they’re at home. Masking up when the CDC recommends it would be very important to help us all continue working and supporting our families and kiddos.”

    “We need parents to for sure keep their kids home if there has been any exposure in their household or if their child is showing any symptoms until they have negative tests,” Schmidt said. “We need all of those things. And then childcare needs ongoing support to be able to have appropriate masking, what they need for sanitizing their programs, all of those things continue to be critically important.”

    The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 588 new cases among children aged 8 and younger during the week of August 8, up from its lowest level of 36 new cases the week of June 20. The weekly number of new cases in that age group peaked in the week of November 1 with 1,570.

    Stress in staff and families alike

    Both Bailey and Schmidt pointed to the added stress the pandemic has added to an already difficult job.

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    “Many of our staff are parents themselves so they have their own kids that are going to be going to school. And how do you continuously operate a program when you’re wrangling with closings and openings and shutdowns?” Bailey said. “I think it has stressed a lot of early childhood programs greatly, because we all want to be there for our families, and particularly with the population we serve. It’s a very vulnerable population. We want them to have services. We also want them to be healthy. So it’s a very challenging environment that I think childcare programs and Head Start is trying to operate in right now.”

    “I used to say before COVID that childcare was in crisis and now I say we are headed towards a catastrophe,” Schmidt said. “Right now, the wages are around 12 bucks an hour. We need ways to raise compensation and to reward people for staying in the field.”

    She said many centers are cutting back hours or even leaving whole classrooms vacant due to staffing shortages. She said government subsidies to help parents pay for childcare are important, but more money needs to be invested directly into the care infrastructure.

    “I mean, there’s no shortage of possible solutions, but we’ve got to have the political will to pay for it,” she said.

    Uncertainty and inconsistency in childcare can also have a lasting impact on families — especially the ones Reach Dane serves.

    “You have folks that are trying to work, are living below the poverty line and trying to navigate COVID at the same time,” Bailey said. “These are folks that don’t necessarily have family support or other resources. And just the stress that it places on our families.”

    Schmidt said it’s important not to turn on childcare providers.

    “I think it’s important for parents to know that childcare programs, childcare providers, people who are working in this field are doing absolutely everything within their power to keep kids safe and healthy,” she said. “People just need to acknowledge that. Childcare programs have taken this incredibly seriously.”

    “My goal is just … I want to get through this,” Frederickson said. “I want us all to be as safe as possible until we are able to go past that. I think our kiddos and we should be masked just for all of our safety. I don’t want to see anything worse happened through this pandemic. I want it to be done. So if we have to keep this up for a bit longer, it will be worth it.”