“Not yet,” I growled. It was early October and my three-year-old had just been kicked out of school for another ten days because a child in her class had tested positive for COVID-19. It was the second time in a month that her class had closed. As any working parent knows all too well by now, I was ten days away from the impossible: juggling full-time child care and full-time work.
More than 90 parents signed a petition this week calling on Orange County to change its policy of closing kindergartens. The effects of preschool closures are monumental: there are 116,000 children aged 3 to 5 in Orange County, over 66% of them in preschools. Evidence shows that interruptions in early childhood education hamper children’s cognitive and social growth. School closures also affect caregivers, especially mothers. A national survey showed that more than one in three women caring for children between the ages of 0 and 5 had been forced to stop working or reduce their working hours since the start of the pandemic.
How many days does an Orange County childcare center have to close if a child tests positive? Due to poor communication, just finding this information feels like a Halloween horror movie. It takes an hour of research just to figure out who makes the decision – the CDC, the state of California, the county, or the preschool itself? For those lucky enough to arrive at the correct answer, namely the Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA), browsing the agency’s many web pages is equally confusing. Each contains a dozen or so hyperlinks to “important guidelines”, some of which refer to obscure subsections of the California Code of Regulations. Thinking of calling them on the phone? The representatives of the hotline make you bounce back. Maybe by e-mail? A quick response will provide you with a hyperlink to OCHCA, and the cycle repeats.
Too often, OCHCA ignores its own rules. County health officer’s orders state that unvaccinated people who are exposed only need to be quarantined for 7 days, as long as individual tests for COVID-19 are negative on day 5. But phone calls to nine preschools in the area revealed that OCHCA contact tracers extend closures to 10-14 days, as in the case of my daughter’s facility. Worse yet, as a representative from the California Licensing Division explained to me, “the guidelines only set a minimum for quarantine, not a maximum, so preschools can close longer if they wish.” .
Preschoolers were left out, unlike their older siblings. The OCHCA is quick to make adjustments for the TK-12 grades. According to the same orders from the health official, our TK-12 schools do not require any quarantine for children directly exposed to COVID-19, including children under 12 who are still not vaccinated. Exposed and unvaccinated TK-12 students can still attend school as long as they are asymptomatic and tested regularly. Indeed, exposed and unvaccinated TK-12 students can even remove their masks at school for “activities where a mask cannot be worn, such as playing certain musical instruments.” In addition, TK-12 schools rarely closed entire classes for days. Indeed, the state of California says that a “temporary school closure due to COVID-19 should be a last resort.” As the National Office of Public Health, Tomas Aragon, announced last week, “all students should have access to safe and comprehensive in-person education and as much teaching time as possible.”
However, no policy exists for preschools. Guidelines for our youngest children are missing from county and state guidelines. The result is a shutdown after shutdown for 10 to 14 days at a time, disrupting the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of families. Vaccines for children under five are months away, says Pfizer; a solution must come sooner.
County and state officials must protect the education and care of preschool children, just as they do for older children. Granted, infants can’t mask themselves, so they’re more likely to spread the virus than, say, second-graders. But older preschoolers are able to mask themselves and do so every day at school. What makes their right to a stable education less important, the need of their parents to work less acute? OCHCA must also apply the principles that guide its TK-12 policies to preschools. Closing childcare centers should be a last resort, for the good of children, their parents and the economy.
Shira Klein lives in Orange. She is a mother of 3 young children in Orange County and an Associate Professor of History at Chapman University.
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