There has been a flurry of discussion about reopening the economy in the aftermath of COVID-19; however, one area that seems to be an afterthought is child care. It simply is not feasible for our economy to get back on its feet without considering the welfare of the youngest in our community.

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Employees cannot return to work without child care programs, including day care centers and schools. While some child care facilities remained open to serve essential workers in our state, most programs closed during the government-mandated shutdown.

The result of this is formidable: a national survey found that 30% of child care programs cannot survive a prolonged closure. As businesses open their doors, child care has to resume, and child care providers will need support.

There is no question that for child care providers and families, the health and safety of children are the greatest priorities. However, health and safety standards and recommendations have to be realistic and developmentally appropriate.

This photo of kids at play at a child care center is from the Hawaii Children’s Action Network website. The nonprofit is solely committed to advocating for keiki. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

While children can be taught to wash their hands frequently and to cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough, asking children under the age of 5 to wear a mask is not practical because most children that age do not have the dexterity and discipline to keep a mask properly affixed to their face.

And while the idea of social distancing works well for most of society, it’s not a realistic expectation for young students in a confined classroom.

Ways To Decrease Risk

Precautions like dropping off and picking up students outside the classroom, taking a child’s temperature before they enter a facility, screening for travel in the child’s household, and not allowing children to bring personal items from home are realistic ways to decrease risk.

Organizing students within assigned groups and restricting interaction between different classes is another way to mitigate the risk of spread and initiate contact tracing if the need arises.

Child care programs operate on razor-thin margins. Hawaii was already facing a severe child care shortage before the pandemic hit our shores and forced the closure of our schools.

The subsequent loss of tuition/fees along with the extra costs of implementing new health and safety standards will negatively impact already tight budgets. Requiring smaller class sizes may seem like a reasonable recommendation; however, it will create additional feasibility and financial difficulties for child care providers and schools.

And increasing tuition/fees to cover the difference is not the solution. Before the pandemic, child care was the second highest cost in a family’s budget, and families cannot afford to spend more especially in light of this most recent economic crisis.

Child care programs operate on razor-thin margins.

For the reopening of child care programs to be successful, state leaders need to plan thoughtfully with input from multiple stakeholders including public and private school administrators, directors, teachers, other child care program personnel and school families.

Creative thinking coupled with strategic vetting of appropriate guidelines/requirements will be crucial to safely and sensibly reopening schools in the weeks and months ahead.  Hawaii’s educational and economic futures are at stake, so the time to address this critical aspect of moving Hawaii forward is now.

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