COLUMBUS, Ohio — The owners of child care centers will have a choice to make in the upcoming weeks: whether to return to normal class sizes and teacher-to-child ratios or continue as they have been during the pandemic.
Governor Mike DeWine made that announcement Tuesday, noting that centers could begin returning to normal on August 9, if that's what they choose.
"We know that children cannot learn unless they're safe, unless they're cared for, and without access to child care, parents may resort to less-than-ideal options because they have no choice for the child care," DeWine said, adding that parents may have to rely on elderly relatives who are at risk for COVID-19.
DeWine said providers would receive a "significant subsidy" if they maintained the current, smaller ratios, or they could choose to go back to normal ratios.
DeWine noted that during the pandemic, the state has subsidized about $30 million a month to child care providers, including those in the private sector, which are not normally subsidized.
"We've done that so that the child care community would have sufficient dollars to be able to run the childcare in the manner that we felt it needed to be run, with reduced ratios," DeWine said.
DeWine noted that the best data the state was able to come up with indicates 442 people connected to child care centers have tested positive for COVID-19. Of those, 306 were staff and 136 were children. Approximately three quarters of those came from community spread, while one quarter came from the child care setting, according to DeWine.
"Even with increased classroom sizes, child care providers still have to comply with very stringent health and safety requirements," DeWine said. "These include face coverings for all staff and children over ten, unless they have a health exemption, symptom and temperature checks when staff and children arrive, washing hands throughout the day, including upon arrival and before departure, frequent cleaning of high touch services and regular deep cleaning."
As child care providers mull over their options, there are a lot of factors to consider.
"If you've ever seen them spinning those plates on sticks, that's sometimes how I feel," said Joan Hamm, executive director at Children First of Cleveland.
Hamm said she and the board of Children First, a nonprofit, are still considering their options when it comes to retaining current ratios and class sizes or going back to normal. She said the center has not had any COVID-19 cases during the pandemic.
"Our statistics have told me that whatever we're doing in our center, the sanitizing, the good hand washing, the keeping parents and guests out, things like that, all those precautions that we put in place, my statistics are telling me that that seems to be working really well," Hamm said.
While Hamm said she must consider the bottom line, as executive director, she also has to think about safety.
"I also have to not only think about their health in terms of COVID-19 and everybody staying healthy, but I also have to think about their mental health," Hamm said. "This was a huge change for them, and now I have to think about how does it make sense to transition them back to something that looks like normal."
Hamm said she was happy to hear the governor feels like child care centers are safe.
"I think what I want people to know is that child care centers are safe. We clean like maniacs. We are one of the safest environments," Hamm said.
Nicky Foster, owner and director of Wickliffe Academy and Collinwood Academy, described DeWine's announcement as a "guarded win" for children and families.
"Obviously with more people returning to work, parents need somewhere safe for their children to go," Foster said. "My colleagues and I have a lot of children, families on waiting lists. But I also think that we have to be on guard and that means we need to [follow] more stringent cleaning practices and protocols, symptom checking."
She added that her center has already been doing many of the things the governor spoke about enforcing.
"But because it's a standard now and not just an option, I think that provides additional safety measures for children and families," Foster said.
She also said that now that many school districts are opting for hybrid or online learning, parents will now have a place to send their children. For her center, she's still deciding what to do and whether to go back to normal ratios and class sizes.
"If the subsidies go away and we're able to populate back at our original ratios, we should be able to make it," Foster said.
She said that for her and other child care center owners, incentives offered by the governor, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, and the Ohio Department of Education would affect decisions.
"There's a little catch phrase going on that we're the workforce behind the workforce," Foster said. "And as other industries are getting attention, folks think that child care, the industry itself, needs a bailout."
She said she was in favor of some kind of help from the federal government and thinks states would benefit from it as well. She also hoped child care centers would be able to continue to provide high-quality services.
"I think at the end of the day, we all want to keep our children safe. But we also want to make sure that, if they have to be somewhere three days a week, that there is a professional there to help them," Foster said. "The last thing we want is for our children to fall behind. And they need that adult. They need that mentor. They need someone with them on the days that they're not in school to help them stay on track."
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