Over the last month, Yale School of Public Health assistant professor Ashley Hagaman and her husband drove from New Haven to North Carolina to leave their 22-month-old son with their nearest family for temporary child care. It was the second time in less than two months that their son was quarantined at home due to a close contact at Phyllis Bodel Child Care Center, the facility where he spends the day.
As national hospitalization rates rise for young children who have tested positive for COVID-19, child care centers around New Haven have seen increased numbers of positive test results from children and staff members in the last two months.
Since children under 4 are ineligible to be vaccinated, Omicron has been spreading amongst younger children at a higher rate than the Delta variant, which partially explains rising cases amongst children. The Food and Drug Administration has only approved vaccines for children aged five and above, which allows older students to be better protected from the virus. While enrollment has remained steady at the center, the school has had to place six classrooms separately into quarantine since Jan. 1 after two teachers and five children received positive test results. The Montessori School on Edgewood, which serves children aged 0 to 5, has seen a similar spike in positive cases for children since the new year. Since the onset of the pandemic, taking care of young children and keeping daytime jobs has been a balancing act for many parents, particularly as child care centers in New Haven struggle to keep their doors open. A 2021 study found that two-thirds of U.S. child care centers closed in April 2020, and one-third remained closed one year later.
“When the pandemic started, there were a lot of parents who wanted to enroll in the program,” said Cecile Malm, education director at Montessori on Edgewood. “Now we’re experiencing a lot of our children getting sick from the pandemic, and having to shut down classrooms, which we have never had to do in the past. Kids, staff and adults are getting sick –– which is going to affect morale, from our mental to our financial states.”
The shutdowns at Montessori and Bodel match a pattern of child care centers around the country facing increased positive results amongst children and staff. At these centers, difficulties in suppressing sickness, troubles with staff retention and keeping the school open with sufficient sanitation measures have closed the doors or lowered enrollment numbers of child care facilities in the U.S. Although the Omicron variant has been less severe than the Delta variant for young children, its transmissibility rates are high, affecting young children especially. While Omicron cases are now dropping in New Haven County, patterns seen in New Haven childcare centers suggest that a similar problem could arise should another variant hit the Elm City.
“Since we got back, we were hit pretty hard,” said Kyle Miller, director of the Bodel Center. “We’ve had to isolate. We’re very fast in responding to make sure there’s no spread beyond the one child or teacher who exposed everyone.”
New Haven’s Office of Early Education, or OEE, mandates that when a child tests positive for COVID-19 at a child care center, every contact within the last 48 hours must also be quarantined for at least 10 days. When cases arise, the OEE and the New Haven Department of Public Health and Safety must be notified. Bodel and Montessori have been following this model.
In March 2020, Mayor Justin Elicker issued an emergency order that shut down all child care centers providing care to more than 12 children, with the exception of children of health care providers. This order was rescinded in June 2020, but many parents at the start of the pandemic were still responding with fear. Although some Bodel families directed their anger and frustration at the pandemic’s impact on their lives toward Bodel’s administration at the start of the pandemic, Miller said that those who returned to Bodel after its months of break in spring 2020 have remained supportive. One family purchased KN95 masks out of pocket for all of the staff members.
“[My families] understand that quarantining a child means the child has to stay home, which is a burden,” Miller said. Bodel provides child care to about 125 children, aged 0 to 5, of families affiliated with the Yale School of Medicine or Public Health. “I feel very badly when I have to do it. It has a domino effect. At the same time, I have had no pushback from the parents. They understand what I am dealing with.”
Throughout the pandemic, New Haven child care centers have shut down classrooms for one to two weeks, according to Melissa Barton, a curator at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and a seminar professor. Barton has two children: one age 7 who attends a New Haven public school, and one age 2 who has been enrolled at the Edith B. Jackson Child Care Program, or EBJ, a Yale-affiliated day care.
At Montessori, funds were diverted over the last two years to the installation of UVC pipes, which refresh the air in a room every five hours, and individual supply boxes –– with crayons, glue and classroom supplies –– were created for each child. Parents were not allowed to drop off their children inside the classroom. At the start of the pandemic, they were wiping down cardboard boxes out of fear, even attempting a virtual format before realizing it would not hold the attention of young children, Malm noted. Their administration and their teaching staff, composed of 10 people, have been operating on a rapid, razor-thin margin each day to keep pace with the pandemic, she said. Malm noted that the administration feels as though they are in a “cycle … pleasing the parents, you’re pleasing the staff, the kids and then it’s not enough, and you have to go back again, again and again.”
As parents ask for their tuition back when their non-COVID-19 positive children are placed into quarantine, the administration has been forced to grapple with ethical questions that affect the livelihood of their families.
“If one family sends their ill child to school and infects the others, is that first family then responsible for compensating other non-positive, quarantined children for tuition?” said Linda Townsend Maier, the executive director of the Greater Dwight Development Corporation, the nonprofit neighborhood organization that funds Montessori.
When staff members at Montessori test positive, administrators step in to help with the children, according to Malm. EBJ’s isolated classroom structure demanded even more coordination among staff, but COVID-19 exposure left them short-staffed, according to Barton.
Another layer of complication arises when child care workers have children of their own who require care. These workers are forced to find ways to balance their own families and extra hours at work.
“Keeping track of the pandemic adds a layer of stress to not only the teachers, but also to everyone in administration, because it is constantly something that is on top of our mind,” said Mikhila Pingili, executive assistant at Montessori. “Before the pandemic, if a child was out for a day or two, we wouldn’t have blinked an eye about it. Now a child doesn’t come in for a day, for two days, we ask all of our parents, why was your child not there?”
While families affiliated with the University still struggle, the institutional programs in place – from Yale’s WorkLife program, which provides Yale faculty and staff with resources on child care and elder care –– along with remote teaching options associated with Yale can make child care for Yale faculty slightly easier.
Barton’s youngest child has attended EBJ since it reopened fully at the end of August 2020. This day care is one of the centers affiliated with Yale’s WorkLife program.
“When the first lockdowns of the pandemic began, I was suddenly without childcare with a 5-year-old and a 6-month-old,” Barton wrote in an email to the News. “We worked for six months, doing our jobs remotely, without childcare for our kids. So did millions of other people. I have no idea how we did it. It felt impossible. I was fortunate, at least, to have some flexibility in my job, but I could not have gone on like that much longer.”
As Barton said, working at Yale provides a degree of flexibility not available to many parents in New Haven. When Omicron arose, Hagaman pointed out, one family at Bodel pulled their child from attendance for a month but continued to pay for both monthly child care tuition and a nanny.
Hagaman said that being a professor gives her some degree of flexibility, as she can continue teaching remotely if her child contracts COVID-19. She noted that in the past two months, she has been forced to find child care for her son after being exposed to COVID-19, pointing out that her family has been “afforded a lot of privilege to do something like that.”
Child care center administrators are apprehensive about the newest variant. But for them, Omicron is another obstacle in a seemingly never-ending sequence of pandemic-related challenges, Miller noted.
Bodel plans to keep their original policies in place.
“My goal is for us to stay open,” Miller said. “You can’t predict anything. You just learn to go with the flow.”
There are six child care centers in New Haven affiliated with Yale’s WorkLife program.