Across the country, parents are trying to plan for a summer without widely-available childcare, camps or park programs, relying on a patchwork of guidelines and local regulations to guide decisions about everything from childcare to summer camp to play dates.
As of this writing, not every state has allowed childcare providers to reopen yet, and not every state has made a decision yet about whether or not to allow day camps and other summer programs to open. Meanwhile, interpretations of the guidelines for safely reopening day cares, day camps and schools also vary widely from state to state.
Until there’s a vaccine or until the coronavirus is brought under control, unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a risk-free environment. In a poll of over 500 epidemiologists published this week in the New York Times, only 30% say they’d send their children to school, camp or day care this summer. Meanwhile, 4 in 10 parents recently polled say they’re not comfortable sending their children back to school until there’s a vaccine. That day is still far off.
All of this is extremely stressful for working parents trying to make a plan for our kids’ care this summer—since the issue of how working parents are going to return to their jobs without school, camp or childcare has somehow not been made a national priority.
Understandably, many parents are desperately looking for an expert answer to the question of whether or not it’s safe to put our kids into daycare or day camp this summer.
There is no one expert-backed answer to the question “when will it be safe to send my child to daycare or camp.” Here’s why that much-needed answer is so hard to find.
1. There’s no such thing as “zero-risk.”
Epidemiologists identify the risk factors for coronavirus transmission in terms of “time, space, people, place.” The ideal combination for lowering risk is a short amount of time, with more space between fewer people in a larger place. As Dr. Emily Landon, a hospital epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist at University of Chicago Medicine, puts it for ProPublica, “Always choose outdoors over indoor, always choose masking over not masking and always choose more space for fewer people over a smaller space.”
Safety guidelines for childcare providers and camp programs are dependent on the state and the provider to enforce as best they can, but it’s impossible to guarantee that no child or staffer will get sick. As author and economist Emily Oster notes in her helpful pandemic risk-assessment guide for parents, “No decision is guaranteed to stop anyone from getting sick, and no decision will doom you…We have to accept some uncertainty to move forward.”
2. Childcare and day camp are not considered low-risk environments by experts.
By definition, childcare is an environment where children and adults from all over the neighborhood gather together for hours at a time, and are often indoors by necessity. Plus, as we all know, little kids are just not great about maintaining social distance. So much for “time, space, people, place.” It’s easy to see why viruses found an easy foothold in daycares and schools, long before the coronavirus pandemic.
That said, there’s a lot that can be done to minimize the risk of virus transmission, and childcare providers, camps and schools are doing everything they possibly can to provide the safest possible environment for our kids, from ramping up testing, distancing and disinfecting practices to requiring staff to wear masks to lowering enrollment and putting alternating schedules in place.
The CDC’s guidelines for safely reopening childcare facilities, which are very similar to the guidelines for camps and schools, suggest daily temperature checks along with frequent cleaning, separating children’s belongings, dividing children into small cohorts, lowering capacity and making sure staffers wear masks, among other recommendations. Following these guidelines will likely be a strain for many providers, but look for a childcare provider that is doing everything they can to minimize exposure.
As experts point out, keeping kids safe and healthy while in daycare will depend on more than just childcare providers following strict guidelines—parents will also need to participate actively in keeping their childcare facility safe, by communicating with their provider, maintaining healthy best practices at home and most importantly, by keeping kids home if anyone in the family is sick or exposed to the virus.
Child Care Aware of America, a national resource and advocacy organization for childcare providers, is maintaining a state-by-state list of local regulations for childcare providers, as well as updates on where childcare facilities are allowed to open and where they’re not.
The Hunt Institute, a nonprofit education policy research organization, also maintains a detailed list of childcare closings, reopenings and regulations by state. Guidelines and regulations for childcare providers reopening this summer will vary from state to state, so be sure to understand what’s considered “safe” where you live.
3. Risk level depends on where you live.
Like everything else related to decisions about when, where and what to reopen, the decision about how and when to allow childcare and day camps to reopen depends entirely on where you live. States are making decisions on a regional basis, based on local virus transmission rates, hospital capacity, contact tracing capacity and testing capacity. In fact, the number one rule to live by (and make decisions by) right now, according to public health experts, is to keep track of overall trends in testing and positive cases where you live.
Meanwhile, care providers and camp directors are making decisions on the basis of what their budgets, staffs and facilities will allow, especially as they try to put into place the CDC’s guidelines, which in many cases call for some pretty big changes—way behind just getting the kids to wash their hands more frequently.
If you happen to live in an area where case counts are low and well-run childcare programs are plentiful, you stand a much better chance of being able to safely send your child to camp or childcare this summer, if your family’s particular situation allows.
4. Parents have to base decisions on their family’s own particular risk level.
If someone in your household is immunocompromised or older, the likelihood of sending your child to camp this summer is probably going to be low—or close to zero. Likewise, if you are pregnant or the parent of a newborn infant, you are probably going to be cautious about sending your older children to daycare or camp this summer.
If this is the case, you’re taking the position that’s right for you. If you decide you’re not ready, then that’s what’s right for your family. You know your family’s particular situation best.
5. Parents also have to base decisions on their own risk tolerance.
You are the ultimate decision-maker for your family—and it’s okay if you don’t feel ready to take risks right now. In the absence of clear national health guidelines for the weirdest summer in decades, it’s up to individuals to decide what feels right and safe for them.
If you live in an area where cases are low and declining, hospitalizations are low and declining, the public health system is stable and social distancing is taken seriously —and no one in your family belongs to an at-risk group—you might decide that sending your kids to day care or day camp this summer is a risk you are willing to take assuming your provider has taken every precaution they can.
The upshot: Whether it’s safe to send your child to day care in your area will depend greatly on local transmission levels, and on how closely your childcare community can adhere to the guidelines that help minimize risk. You alone can decide for your family whether the risks are worth the benefits.