As child care centers across Texas slowly reopen, reported COVID-19 cases among children and staff are rising even as the state eliminates temporary safety rules put in place to lower risks during the pandemic.
As of last week, state-licensed child care centers are no longer required to comply with a list of safety precautions in effect since mid-April. That means centers will decide for themselves if they want to check staff temperatures, require parents to drop off their children outside or stop serving family-style meals, according to a notice from the state Health and Human Services Commission.
Other safety guidelines provided by the state during the current public health crisis— including minimum class sizes — are recommended and not required, the state told providers in late May. Child care centers will not face repercussions for keeping staff to student ratios extra low.
The number of open child care centers has slowly grown over the last month, from 10,925 in May to 12,172 at the beginning of this week. That slow reopening has also prompted an increase in the number of caregivers and young children who reported contracting COVID-19.
In mid-May, 36 employees and 23 children in 53 centers had reportedly been infected, according to a state tally. As of this Tuesday, 167 employees and 75 children at 203 centers had been infected. And Thursday the numbers rose further to 226 employees and 113 children in 270 centers.
Many parents are terrified about sending their children to child care, as the state's overall hospitalization and infection rates continue setting record highs. As Gov. Greg Abbott's administration continues its efforts to reopen businesses, some parents hope they'll be able to continue working from home, but others don't have that option.
"It seems like if we want more kids safe and parents to go back to work, both goals we can all agree on, that higher safety standards plus some public funding to support child care programs could help Texas meet those goals," said Stephanie Rubin, chief executive officer of policy group Texans Care for Children.
The state's constantly changing regulations during the last few months have been confusing for parents and child care employees. Abbott first allowed all child care centers to stay open while other businesses were forced to close. Later, he allowed child care centers to serve just the children of essential workers, while other businesses reopened, leaving restaurant and movie theater employees without a place to keep their children.
As of May 18, all child care operations have been allowed to take children from all families, not just children of essential workers.
Some child care providers are planning to continue following the extra safety guidelines the state no longer requires. But doing so is costly, especially as the state continues to roll back subsidies for low-income and essential workers.
"Some child care programs will try to meet those higher safety standards and recommended guidance because it's the right thing to do," Rubin said. "But assuming they can stay in business, some will just pass those costs off to already cash-strapped parents."
Shirley Gamble owns Child's Day, a center in Austin which closed in the middle of March, unable to train staff on the new safety protocols overnight. They furloughed staff and decreased parents' tuition from $1,500 to $100 monthly, but still paid rent, utilities, administrative costs and employees.
The center opened again June 8, with about half its regular enrollment, and Gamble expects that number to go up to about 85% in September. "We'll just about break even," she said. And the center mainly serves middle-class parents, meaning she never qualified for state assistance.
Even so, she plans to keeping students in small groups, taking everyone's temperature and not allowing extra adults in the building. "I think children need the more stringent health and safety precautions that were in place and I would feel better if the state had not rolled back the guidelines last week," she said. "There are going to be centers that are going to go back to having lower quality and standards."
Amy Zavala, a nurse at a chemical plant outside of Amarillo, helps her son take care of her grandson, who is 6 years old. Normally he would be at school, but all the schools were forced to closed their doors through the end of the academic year.
Zavala, her son and her husband are all essential workers, so her grandson goes to a local child care center, which she said doesn't take the pandemic seriously enough. "The owner of our little day care is a huge Donald Trump fan and she just kind of decided the whole thing was a hoax by the Democrats," Zavala said. "She didn't do anything extra because she didn't believe there was a big problem."
Local child care advocates are working hard to make sure the child care directors continue to follow the additional safety guidance, especially as COVID-19 cases rise across the state. In Tarrant County, the county epidemiology officials are working with child care licensing and subsidy providers to ensure child care centers are preventing and containing any infections, said Kara Waddell, who leads the county's child care task force.
Otherwise, parents with children who have been exposed to the virus could easily transfer to a different center, without quarantining or getting tested. "My concern would be whether that's happening across the state," Waddell said.