As they develop health and safety protocols to reopen child-care centers amid the coronavirus pandemic, state regulators are considering an extreme measure — barring infants.
Children younger than 15 months old would be initially excluded from group care under one proposal now being evaluated by state early education regulators.
It’s a possibility that parents find confounding as many begin to contemplate a return to their jobs after months of trying to work from home.
“It’s crazy and I really hope that the governor looks at that,” said Wayne Friberg, whose 7-month-old son attends Little Stars Learning Center in South Dennis. “We need to do something for the families out there that do need infant care.”
Another father questioned the restriction of infants from child care when they are mingled at home.
“So it’s going to be OK for my 2 ½-year old to go to day care and then come home and slobber all over my infant?” asked Sean Howe.
Howe, of Waltham, said his wife’s office doesn’t reopen until July, but she expects to begin working from home when her maternity leave ends in early June.
“We were counting on day care for that time. How do you watch a toddler and an infant and still work?” he asked.
Parents and child-care providers have grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of clarity about the future of child care, as businesses began the first phase of reopening this week. Governor Charlie Baker ordered all early education centers and family child-care providers closed by March 23, while letting some continue operating as emergency-care programs for essential workers. He later extended the closure to June 29 — six weeks after some other businesses begin opening.
Business leaders and advocates have been agitating for more coordination, noting employees can’t get back to work if their children are at home. But even as they prepare for an eventual reopening, the state’s Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) has given licensees few specifics about what to expect. During a webinar with providers on Wednesday evening, the department’s commissioner, Samantha L. Aigner-Treworgy, pointed to the need for face masks, regular screening and monitoring of children’s health, heightened sanitation, and reduced group ratios — but without details.
“This will be a very different kind of child care than we knew previously,” said Aigner-Treworgy.
The state already had strict regulations governing the ratio of child-care teachers to students in a room at any one time, but at a time of social distancing, those numbers are likely to be reduced even further. A document first reported by Boston 25 WFXT said that, in addition to excluding infants, child-care centers may need to limit the group in any room to 10 people, including teachers.
Both moves would have potentially devastating financial implications for child-care providers, who have already been shut down for two months and who make their highest rates from infants, who require a higher level of care and a lower teacher ratio.
“It’s physical contact all day long,” said Brittany Moscoso, the mother of a preschooler and a newborn who she was expecting would start day care by fall.
“It’s something that we worry about,” she said. “But on the other hand — what do I do about my full-time job?”
Susan Dunn, the owner and director of Early Childhood School of Georgetown, said that by eliminating her infant room — one of six classrooms in her center — she would lose about $15,000 income a month.
“It will kill so many programs,” said Charlie Marcotty, a co-owner of First Circle Learning Centers in Lexington and Framingham. “We can’t operate that way.”
Marcotty said she needs to operate at about 85 percent of capacity to break even.
Aigner-Treworgy suggested during the webinar that the state is prepared to provide assistance to child-care centers that would be hurt by reduced attendance, but she was not specific. The state was awarded $45 million in funds for child care from the federal CARES Act, which has not been disbursed, though a spokeswoman said the administration is working with the Legislature to make those funds available.
It’s unclear exactly why infants would be excluded from group care, though they obviously require more hands-on care. Though children and teens are at lower risk from the coronavirus than adults, infants are thought to face a slightly higher risk of severe illness from it due to immature immune systems and smaller airways, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Providers noted that other states did not shut down day-care centers at all and that infants have not been restricted from the emergency child-care programs that the state permitted in recent months.
“There’s no data that backs this up,” said Marcotty.
Those emergency child-care programs also commingled children of a wide array of ages — from infants to 14 years old.
Friberg noted that his child-care center is operating as an emergency-care program and his baby has been able to attend, since his wife is a physician assistant. Would the baby be bumped under the new protocol? he questioned.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Friberg said.
So far, the Baker administration has not offered much clarity. Asked what data were driving the decision-making on reopening child-care centers, Colleen Quinn, director of communications in the Executive Office in Education, said in a statement: “Massachusetts is one of hardest hit states impacted by the coronavirus. The Departments of Early Education and Care and Public Health are developing guidelines that balance families’ need for child care with [the] health and safety of residents and child-care providers.”
She noted the department is working with Public Health and the administration’s Command Center and added, “EEC understands that all decisions have an impact on providers and will keep in close communication with providers before final decisions are made."