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The omicron variant is wreaking havoc at day care centers

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

We're going to spend the next several minutes talking about children under 5. They're still too young to be vaccinated for coronavirus. And our education correspondent Anya Kamenetz finds this means more stress and disruption for parents and caregivers. Good morning.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So what's going on with the youngest kids now?

KAMENETZ: So we should say, you know, the omicron variant itself is still quite mild for most children. But there are just so many cases right now that hospitalizations are up, particularly among the children under 5. And we've heard that those vaccines may still be months away. But, you know, that's not the only reason that both parents and caregivers of young children are telling me this is the worst moment of the pandemic so far. Caregivers have been leaving the profession. And parents are living in fear of getting that call or that email that day care is going to be closed for quarantine, or that their child just wakes up with a runny nose and has to stay home.

ELLIOTT: It makes it really hard to plan your life, right?

KAMENETZ: That's right.

ELLIOTT: So the CDC has shortened isolation periods now for employees and is advising that schools use rapid tests so they can keep students in the classroom. Have those rule changes affected day cares or preschools?

KAMENETZ: It's very patchwork, you know? Providers say that they're confused about what guidance to follow - is it the CDC, which has changed, the state, the county? And since these kids are not vaccinated, it does vary. But many centers are sticking to that two-week quarantine or 10-day quarantine. They're sending home an entire classroom for just one case. And then, you know, you add to that in many places, it's still hard to get tests. Children this age, they're prone to wake up with symptoms for any reason. So it's a lot of disruptions.

ELLIOTT: You've spent this last week talking to parents and providers around the country. And it sounds like you got an earful.

KAMENETZ: Yes. Let me just start out with Cori Berg. She directs the Hope Day School. That's a church-affiliated preschool program in Dallas.

CORI BERG: This is the worst it has ever been. Last week, in particular, every single director I know got really beat up.

KAMENETZ: The low point for her?

BERG: Oh, I had somebody tell me to [expletive] off last week.

KAMENETZ: That irate parent gave up her spots when Berg closed both of her children's classrooms for 14-day quarantines. And when she wanted to bring them back, there was no room.

BERG: She was behaving like a toddler, jumping up and down. I've never seen an adult act that way.

KAMENETZ: Berg said the mother later apologized for throwing such a tantrum. When I spoke with Berg, she was isolating on her couch with symptoms after being exposed to COVID at work. She couldn't find an at-home rapid test for sale anywhere. And the next available PCR test was four days later. Across the country in Brooklyn, Kasia Kaim-Goncalves also said this was the worst moment of the whole pandemic. She runs a home-based program for 2 and 3-year-olds.

KASIA KAIM-GONCALVES: This variant affected me most in this whole period since COVID started, because not only did I get sick, my whole family was sick. But also, with such high positivity rates, half children are out at any given time.

KAMENETZ: Kaim-Goncalves says, she doesn't know what health guidance to follow. And parents are lobbying her to relax the rules.

KAIM-GONCALVES: So crazy because we don't know which guidelines to follow. Should we follow the CDC? Should I follow the state rules? And they're different.

KAMENETZ: The CDC has shortened its isolation guidance to five days from 10. Many public schools were following test-to-stay policies that can allow exposed children to return to school with daily rapid tests. But many day cares, including Berg's and Kaim-Goncalves', are still closing entire classrooms for 14 days for a single case.

KAIM-GONCALVES: You know, we can't come to a consensus with the families. It's very stressful for families. It's very stressful for us.

KAMENETZ: Charles Billot's 2-year-old daughter goes to Kaim-Goncalves' day care in Brooklyn. He says keeping her there and healthy...

CHARLES BILLOT: It's been a lot of dodging bullets.

KAMENETZ: Billot and his wife have an infant as well. And when his toddler is sent home with any symptoms at all, he has to do his work at night. He's in film production.

BILLOT: Kids in bed at 8, 8:30 p.m., time for them to make sure they are asleep, like, 9:30, 10 p.m. At the office until 3 a.m. - 2 a.m., 3 a.m.

KAMENETZ: Some caregivers say parents are just refusing to follow the rules. Bernadette Ngoh is an in-home provider in West Haven, Conn.

BERNADETTE NGOH: When I insist on take a child for testing, some parents will explain to me, what if I take my child to test and then the child comes back positive? Then I cannot go to work. What will I do with my rent, with my bills?

GLADYS JONES: They come in. And they don't tell us they're sick.

KAMENETZ: Gladys Jones also runs an in-home day care in Staten Island, N.Y. Her clients are living paycheck to paycheck. Some are in shelters. They cannot afford to miss a day of work. So they bring in sick kids.

JONES: And I say, you have to be - we have to be morally conscious. Come on. You could kill somebody.

KAMENETZ: On a recent morning, a mother brought her sick toddler in after an older sibling was exposed to COVID on the school bus.

JONES: And she just threw up all over the place.

KAMENETZ: Joseph Speyer is another working dad of two living in Washington, D.C. In December, he and his wife spent $1,000 on backup child care when their son's day care closed for a quarantine. In January, they had to do it again.

JOSEPH SPEYER: You know, this whole thing just has really put a lot of strain on us, like, financially, emotionally.

KAMENETZ: Speyer says, the hardest part of all has been seeing the impact of the disruption on his two little kids.

SPEYER: I mean, it's the changing routine. We've had to constantly, you know, just force them into a new day every day, totally different, on a 2-year-old, 4-year-old.

KAMENETZ: Bernadette Ngoh in Connecticut is a member of a network called All Our Kin that advocates for better public support for child care, especially in-home child cares, like hers.

NGOH: Child care becomes one of the things that we need to look at critically and give it the support it deserves, especially as we are not taking care of little, little bananas and chicken. We are taking care of the next generation of who the nation will rely on, our next leaders.

KAMENETZ: Ngoh recently testified at a Senate hearing about the need for more funding so families have better options.

ELLIOTT: So Anya, is there anything on the horizon that might ease this situation?

KAMENETZ: So the last three months of job numbers show that things are actually getting worse. Day care workers are leaving the workforce. Cori Berg says, you know, you can make more money down the street at Walmart than you can working for a day care. So the American Rescue Plan gave $24 billion in stabilization grants to child care programs last year, which many providers told me was very helpful. But the Build Back Better plan, you know, it has $400 billion on the table for federal child care and preschool funding. And that's stalled right now in Congress. So the hope right now that I've heard from advocates is that the child care parts of this plan might be carved off into their own bill to help solve the supply crisis here.

ELLIOTT: NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz. Thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thank you, Debbie.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH SHABASON'S "NOVEMBER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.