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Day care restrictions are unsustainable, providers say

Monitor staff
Published: 5/23/2020 4:38:05 PM

When the first wave of COVID-19 cases began hitting New Hampshire in March, Sally Wuellenweber remembers a clear message from the state to child care providers: Stay open if you can.

Gov. Chris Sununu took to the press to implore facilities to keep their doors open if possible, and the state launched the Emergency Child Care Provider Designation Program in March, incentivizing facilities to keep going and prioritize children of front line medical workers in exchange for additional funding.

And Wuellenweber did. She kept her Concord facility, The Tot Spot, running, even as parents began withdrawing children from the center and even after they stopped making parents who did that continue to pay. And she signed on as a designated emergency provider.

Now, Wuellenweber and other daycare facility owners say they’ve been taken by surprise. A new guidance issued by the state on Monday adds a number of reopening restrictions to child care facilities. Chief among the new rules: a limit of 10 children and adults per room.

That limit represents a major change from how many day care facilities operate owners say. Owners and directors called it “a shock” and “unsustainable.”

“The messages that we were getting were: ‘Take as many kids as you can, licensing rules are out the window,’ ” Wuellenweber said “ ‘…Keep the economy moving, keep essential workers in their jobs.’ We did those things.”

“Now all of a sudden we’re going backwards,” she added. “And so we’re being asked to operate using the ratios that are less than what normal state licensing requirements are.”

Beth Smarse, director of the Early Enrichment Center in Concord, agreed.

“It’s just not feasible for us if we have to continue through the entire summer like this, said Smarse. “It’s just not feasible.”

Centers are now pushing to reverse the change. Through the week, day care facility owners lobbied the Governor’s Economic Reopening Taskforce for change, launched calls, and sent letters to get the state to reverse course.

One center, Little Beginnings in Derry, brought parents onboard. In a letter sent out Wednesday, the center urged parents to send complaints to the governor’s office against the move, even providing a template letter to do so.

“After successfully operating as a Certified Emergency Center for two months these new, more stringent guidelines were a shock to us,” the letter stated.

“If these rules stand as written, we will need to exclude some preschoolers from our program and shorten our hours to comply with the staffing and capacity impacts of this order,” the letter added.

Some facilities have gone even further. There was discussion of a State House protest, and a even “strike” by certain facilities until the guideines change, Wuellenweber said.

State officials have been aware of the feedback. On Friday, Gov. Chris Sununu acknowledged the concerns and said that the state had revised the guidance as of Friday to accommodate them.

The new guidance still retains the cap of 10 people per room, but allows for greater flexibility for centers to allow more kids, such as staggered lunch times, Sununu said.

“We listened to folks over the last couple days,” Sununu said. “We had a lot of direct input from childcare providers themselves, people that own the facilities, parents.”

Still, many child care facilities say that the 10-person cap is burdensome on its own.

For many directors, this week’s policy change is a frustrating case of mixed messaging. Where in the beginning of the pandemic, the state was encouraging facilities to keep their doors open and take on as many children as feasible and safe to do so, the new guidelines send a different message, they say.

Early on in New Hampshire’s pandemic response, the Department of Health and Human Services sought to incentivize day care facilities to keep serving children with a piece of $5 million in funding if they stayed open.

Some didn’t take the state up in that, shutting their doors either temporarily or permanently.

Now, those that did stay open say they’re being forced into an impossible position by the new rules.

Across the state, facilities say the impact to revenues will be acute, directors warn. Wuellenweber estimates that the financial toll could amount to 40% to 60% if lost income for day care facilities across the state. That level, she and other directors have said, is unsustainable.

The state has set aside $25 million in emergency relief funds for child care via the $1.25 billion CARES act allotment given through the U.S. Treasury. Facility owners, however, say it may be too little, too late.

The daycare centers have been facing hardship elsewhere, too. In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, many families withdrew their children from the centers, causing a revenue squeeze. Some of them paid a retainer to keep their child’s spot, but the impact was felt all the same.

At the Tot Spot, average daily attendance plummeted from 50 to 11, as the state was hit with a wave of layoffs and many families stayed and attempted to work from home.

Meanwhile, centers face a number of long term problems that predate the crisis, from a lack of workforce, to a faulty career pipeline, to a set of licensing regulations that many see as onerous.

Now, at least one of those problems might be about to turn around. As more businesses reopen this month, many parents who had withdrawn kids from the program are hoping to get back in.

But the 10-person cap could prevent some of them from doing that, owners say. To Smarse, the limitation could mean the center has to reduce its levels by 50%.

For many of the centers, the situation does not call for families to be thrown out on the spot. Rather, it may mean that families that had been paying the retainer to hold the spot will not have a spot ready for them when they’re ready to bring their kids back.

Directors say it’s a frustrating spot to be in as a business and a service to patients. And it’s unnecessary, they argue. Even with class and room sizes of 20-25 throughout the pandemic, the cleaning procedures in place appear to work already, they say.

“We have not seen a sniffle in the last eight weeks,” said Smarse. “So we feel what we are doing, cleaning and taking temperatures, we’re the healthiest we’ve ever been. So we don’t see why we have to change what we’re doing going forward.”

But state officials say the revised guidelines are the best compromise possible between safety and utility. Even though children are at relatively low risk of disease or death from COVID-19, that picture complicated Friday, when the Department of Health and Human Services announced the first case of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, an inflammation of various organs and systems in children that can be ex acerbated by the disease.

It “simply provides a little more flexibility for the instructors in terms of mask wearing, a little more flexibility in terms of making sure that those kids are in groups of less than 10,” Sununu said of the new guidance Friday. “Because we know that that’s safer.”

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