By Christina Veiga, originally published in Chalkbeat New York
Privately run child care centers in New York City can reopen as early as Monday, about three months after the coronavirus forced 3,000 programs to shut their doors.
Program leaders had been lobbying to reopen their businesses, arguing that child care is essential to getting the economy humming again.
Allowing programs to reopen means they may now benefit from state grants to help pay for the costs of rebooting child care centers, such as acquiring more space to comply with social distancing requirements.
Still, the sudden announcement on Tuesday sent operators scrambling to comply with new safety measures with little guidance from the city health department. And it’s unclear how many will be able to reopen quickly after extended closures wreaked financial havoc on centers, which mostly rely on privately paid tuition to get by. Some have already permanently closed.
“I’m just about to lose my mind right now, I have to say,” said Fela Barclift, who won’t be able to reopen any time soon because she already started construction over the summer to install more hand-washing stations in her child care center, Little Sun People in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “We don’t have support for reopening.”
Child care providers overseen by the state, such as those based in private homes, have been allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic. But the rest of the child care centers, including Barclift’s, which are overseen by the city’s health department, were ordered to shut down on April 6. Only some 125 centers contracted to serve the families of front-line workers continued operating, and the city officials have said they have not tracked any outbreaks linked to those programs.
On Tuesday, the city’s Board of Health voted to allow centers to reopen. Officials said that transmission of the coronavirus had been sufficiently curbed and that parents need safe child care options as the city steadily begins to reopen.
City programs will have to follow state guidelines, which call for limiting groups of children to 15, requiring staffers to cover their face, and staggering schedules for families to drop off and pick up their children. Programs are required to regularly disinfect surfaces, and to limit the use of toys that aren’t easily cleaned, such as plush toys or dress up clothes. Families and employees will have complete daily health screens, which ask whether they or anyone they are in close contact with have COVID-19 symptoms.
Face coverings are not required in the classroom for children younger than kindergarten age, and they are “encouraged but not required” for older children, according to the state’s regulations.
Beyond that, however, providers said they’ve been given little guidance for reopening — and no runway to plan. They’ll have to make sense of a maze of new and constantly changing requirements.
Before she can reopen her Park Slope child care center, Honeydew Drop director Fabiola Santos-Gaerlan said she’ll have to change some fundamental aspects of her program and figure out how to create new classroom spaces.
Typically, children of mixed ages play and learn together in a large, open room, she said. Now, she’ll have to break them up by ages, and divide an 800-square-foot space into various rooms. The temporary space dividers that she has priced out cost more than $1,500 each.
“We’re going to be so stressed trying to meet the guidelines,” said Santos-Gaerlan. “These are all things that we need to save for and plan for.”
She said she is applying for a state grant to help pay for the dividers, but isn’t sure when the money would come through. When the state first announced the grants, which are funded through federal stimulus money, it was unclear whether New York City programs would be eligible for the funds. That’s because the state requires programs to reopen by the end of July — but it was still unclear whether the city would allow programs to begin operating by then.
For other early childhood centers, the all-clear for reopening has come too late. At the Maple Street School in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, director Wendy Jo Cole has decided to continue to operate only virtually over the summer. There is too much that needs to be done to reopen safely, she said.
In the meantime, she has taken advantage of safety webinars offered by the state, has scheduled trainings with the school nurse for her staff, and is working on a plan to offer class mostly outdoors come September. But she wishes the department of health were more proactive in helping providers figure out the complicated logistics of reopening. Cole said requests for virtual meetings have gone unanswered.
“While we appreciate the permission to open, we need the support. Running a preschool in a pandemic is way different than running a preschool regularly,” Cole said.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.