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‘We Need Help’: Early Childhood Educators Navigate Shifting Safety Guidelines As COVID-19 Cases Rise

A teacher wearing a mask and colorful shirt sits in the center of a wood table, helping two children, also in masks, with a crafts project.
At Hedgerow, a Santa Monica preschool and summer camp, most of the day is spent outside. Teacher Taylor Yu joins two young summer campers in a bit of cardboard construction.
(Stefanie Ritoper/ LAist)
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4:04
Early Childhood Educators Navigate Shifting Coronavirus Safety Guidelines

It’s a now familiar routine. Beth Collier holds a white infrared thermometer up to the forehead of each child before they enter her home-based Santa Monica preschool.

At Hedgerow, as the preschool is called, everyone wears a mask throughout the day, and meals and most activities happen outside. Collier has removed soft toys that are harder to sanitize.

These are just a few of the measures that helped reassure mom Julie Lipman. Her kids didn’t go to school in person last year, but she felt comfortable enrolling them in summer camp here.

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“I knew we weren't ready to go back into the real wide world,” Lipman said. “And I knew that Beth had really strong protocols in place.”

For Collier, figuring out how to operate safely has been anything but easy. She regularly consults the L.A. County Department of Public Health, the agency that licenses child care and preschools, the state health department, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and too many webinars to count.

She’s running her business, fixing a broken mask, helping another child find a book about “roly polies,” sanitizing surfaces and trying to navigate shifting public health guidelines, all at the same time.

We're doing it because we love what we do, and we're passionate about it, but we want to do it safely and we need help.
— Beth Collier, owner of Hedgerow Preschool

Now as the delta variant spreads, including among children, L.A. County has relaxed some of the guidelines for early childhood care and education. Providers are left to sift through dozens of recommendations from multiple agencies to determine what’s realistic for their centers.

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Collier and her co-teacher are vaccinated, but that doesn’t abate her worry. She would like to implement her own testing protocol, but said getting to public testing sites is too cumbersome and time consuming for families and early educators.

“There have been times where we've just hit rock bottom, you know, where it's like, ‘Can I keep doing this?’” Collier said. “And yet, we're doing it because we love what we do, and we're passionate about it, but we want to do it safely and we need help.”

New Guidelines For Early Childhood COVID-19 Safety

ECE DELTA SAFETY Hedgerow Preschool Santa Monica coronavirus early childhood
Beth Collier checks a child's temperature outside her home-based preschool and summer camp, Hedgerow.
(Stefanie Ritoper/ LAist)

At the beginning of the month, the L.A. County Health Department issued new guidelines for early learning and care settings.

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The requirements boil down to this: Children over age two and staff must wear masks indoors and providers must report any positive COVID-19 cases among staff, kids and visitors to the health department, state licensing, and the families of children in their care.

Daily health screenings, social distancing and vaccines are all considered best practices, but not mandated.

California’s vaccine and testing order for K-12 education employees doesn’t apply to independent child care centers or independent preschools. LAist asked the state’s Department of Public Health why, but we haven't received a response yet.
Providers LAist talked to say they plan to maintain stricter protocols than what’s required.

Family Forward Learning Center Pasadena early childhood preschool coronavirus
A teacher at Families Forward Learning Center in Pasadena sorts through bins of individual learning materials.
(Mariana Dale
/
LAist)

“It was important for us as an early childhood care center, because we were going to be working with children that cannot be vaccinated, for us to create the safest environment,” said Families Forward Learning Center executive director Elva Sandoval. The Pasadena preschool provides free programs for low-income families.

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At the Salvation Army’s four licensed child development centers in Los Angeles, staff conduct health screenings at the start of each day and sanitize each child’s shoes, and all staff were asked to get vaccinated.

“They're not enforcing, but they are recommending,” said Maxine Higa, the Salvation Army's divisional director for child and youth programs.

Higa added that public health mandates make it easier to explain and enforce their policies.

Research indicates that preschools and child care centers are not major drivers of COVID-19 infections.

But children and staff can become infected, sometimes without symptoms, and then spread the coronavirus to others, including vulnerable family members.

ECE DELTA SAFETY Hedgerow Preschool Santa Monica coronavirus early childhood
A child washes her hands before starting another day at Hedgerow in Santa Monica.
(Stefanie Ritoper
/
LAist)

The California Department of Public Health reports more than 100,000 children under 5 years old have gotten COVID-19.

“A lot of what we found was that higher numbers of cases were observed when community rates were higher,” said Christine Kim, an epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She studied coronavirus cases in Washington D.C. child care facilities.

Kim said even when there’s widespread infection in the community, like there is in L.A. County right now, child care providers can reduce the risk for students and staff within their centers.

“No single strategy is 100% effective on its own,” Kim said. “It's really important that we layer on these strategies to prevent as much threat as possible.”

What’s Required And What’s Recommended

We reviewed the latest early childhood education guidance from the L.A. County Department of Public Health, and talked with public health and infectious disease experts and providers.

Here are some of our top takeaways — and you'll find links to the requirements and guidance from multiple agencies at the bottom of the story.

Vaccinations

There is no state or county-wide vaccine mandate for child care or early education like there is for K-12 education staff or health care workers.

Keesha Woods, the executive director of the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Head Start and Early Learning Division, said in a statement that they’re exploring a vaccine and testing mandate for the programs the division oversees.

“If we do, we must be positioned to provide resources to support,” Woods said.

For child care providers, vaccination is a critical tool in preventing kids and other adults from getting sick.

“Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes the CDC in its guidance for operating early care and education centers.

The L.A. County Department of Public Health’s most recent guidance suggests encouraging employees to get vaccinated by offering bonuses or additional paid time off. Providers with multiple employees might also consider hosting their own vaccination clinic.

“All adults and adult caregivers should really be vaccinated if they're caring for children,” said Stanford professor of pediatrics, infectious diseases and global health Yvonne Maldonado. “Not only for the safety of the children, but their own safety and their families as well.”

Masks / PPE

Just like any other public or private business in L.A. County masks are required indoors in preschool and child care settings. This rule applies to children and students over the age of two, staff, volunteers, parents and any visitors. Children may remove their masks while napping, eating and drinking.

The county advises that since children younger than 12 cannot be vaccinated, staff should wear a cloth face mask over a surgical mask, aka “double mask.” They should also consider wearing gloves for serving food, diapering, handling trash or when disinfecting.

Higa, with the Salvation Army, said teaching young children to keep their masks on was challenging at first, but incentives like an extra toy from the treasure chest helped sweeten the deal for them.

“They understand and we can teach them as long as there's a routine and structure,” Higa said. “It works.”

COVID-19 Cases

Providers are required to have one person designated to share information about COVID-19 safety protocols and a plan for possible exposure to the coronavirus at their center.

The county requires providers isolate children or staff that show symptoms of COVID-19 until they can be transported home.

They must notify the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the state’s Community Care Licensing Division and other families of any confirmed COVID-19 cases in employees, children, visitors (including parents that enter the facility), and household members of family child care homes within one business day.

Three or more confirmed cases within a two-week period should be reported immediately to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and state’s Community Care Licensing Division.

Preschools and early childhood education centers should also post signs reminding people not to enter if they have COVID-19 symptoms or are isolating or quarantining.

Social Distancing

Physical distancing between children and staff is no longer required, but “it is an additional tool for infection control that can be used at ECE sites to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

The county recommends:

  • Caring for and educating children in stable groups that interact with the same staff each day.
  • Children eat their meals outdoors, space and weather permitting. If children must eat inside, move tables to provide more space or consider using name cards to keep children apart.
  • Providing an outdoor break area for staff, and keeping tables six feet apart in indoor break areas.
  • Using barriers or partitions between staff who have frequent contact with other employees or visitors.

Ventilation

There are no L.A. County Department of Public Health requirements for ventilation, but the department recommends providers maintain a functioning HVAC system with upgraded air filters, portable air cleaners, increasing fresh air circulation by opening windows and doors and using child-safe fans that blow air outward, and opening windows in transportation vehicles.

Cleaning

The L.A. County Department of Public Health’s most recent guidelines don’t mandate cleaning beyond the typical existing requirements for child care and early education facilities. The California Code of Regulations section 101238(a) says “the child care center shall be clean, safe, sanitary and in good repair.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has a list of cleaning products approved to kill the novel coronavirus.

Testing

L.A. County does not mandate screening testing for independent early childhood education and child care programs.

Some providers set up their own protocol anyway. When vaccines weren’t yet available, Pasadena’s Families Forward Learning Center asked staff to get tested every two weeks with the help of the city’s public health department. Executive director Elva Sandoval said there was no pushback on the testing and now 100% of the staff is fully vaccinated.

“We always veer [into] what's going to be safe for our children,” Sandoval said.

But it hasn’t always been easy for providers or the families they serve to access free public testing. Beth Collier in Santa Monica said she wants services specifically for the early education sector, which often lacks the resources of large public school districts.

She said it can be challenging for working families and already-overwhelmed providers to get to a testing site.

“As calm as I am on one level, because being a teacher so long, you've got to be ready to deal with anything...I'm terrified,” Collier said. “I feel like the support we got in the first 12 months of the pandemic has kind of disappeared.”

Links to COVID-19 Safety Guidance For Child Care and Early Education

L.A. County’s Early Care & Education COVID-19 Toolkit, updated 8/17/2021

What is it? The toolkit has links to all of the county’s public health guidance related to child care and early education.

Learn more: The county also conducts telebriefings specifically for child care providers and early educators where they can learn about the latest guidance and ask questions. To learn more call 213-240-8144 or email media@ph.lacounty.gov. Organizations including the Child Care Alliance of Los Angeles also regularly share the invitations to these briefings on social media.

Child Care Heroes

What is it? A website created by the L.A. County Early Childhood Education COVID-19 Response Team. It breaks down the official guidance from the county and offers tips and examples from other providers. There’s also advice for parents and caregivers of young children.

Learn more: The response team also holds periodic webinars with updates. You can email ececovidresponse@lacoe.edu for information on how to register.
California Department of Public Health Guidance for Child Care Providers and Programs, updated June 29, 2021

What is it? Guidance from the state of California. Providers are advised to follow the strictest requirements that apply to their circumstance.

California Community Care Licensing Division Child Care Licensing Program Provider Information Notices, last updated July 30, 2021

What are they? Requirements and recommendations for licensed California child care providers. Not every provider information notice, sometimes known as a PIN, is related to COVID-19.

California Division of Occupational Safety and Health COVID-19 Guidance and Resources

What is it? Regulations from the state agency meant to protect workers in a variety of industries. Topics include ventilation, vaccines, training and testing.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 Guidance for Operating Early Care and Education/Child Care Programs, Updated July 9, 2021

What is it? Guidance from the national public health agency of the U.S.

American Academy of Pediatrics Guidance Related to Childcare During COVID-19

What is it? Tips from the professional association representing 67,000 pediatricians including how to support emotional and behavioral health in addition to coronavirus safety.

Child Care Aware of America Coronavirus Resources

What is it? This nationwide nonprofit has hosted informational webinars, has policy suggestions for supporting child care and there are some resources specific to California, here.

What questions do you have about early childhood education and development? What do you want to know about kids ages 0-5 and those who care for them in Southern California?
Decades of research indicates early childhood education significantly boosts children’s readiness to learn. Mariana Dale wants families, caregivers and educators to have the information they need to help children 0-5 grow and thrive by identifying what’s working and what’s not in California’s early childhood system.