School Reopenings Across Connecticut Ignore State Guidance, Raise Issues of Childcare

“Schools are the biggest single provider of childcare in all of Connecticut,” said Beth Bye, commissioner for the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood in an interview with CT Examiner on Friday afternoon. 

And according to the most recent data — judging by the standards released on July 30 by the Office of the Governor — every school district in every county in Connecticut can return this fall to classroom instruction.

So the decision of nearly a hundred towns to adopt a hybrid model of instruction — combining distance learning and in-class instruction — misses the role of classroom education in providing childcare for families, said Bye.

“The hybrid model will be an incredible strain on children and families. In all honesty, I don’t get it,” said Bye.“There is widespread panic amongst parents” as September approaches — not panic about the spread of COVID-19, but families trying to balance work and childcare when schools are no longer open full time.

A free, safe, supervised place for young people ages 5 to 18 to spend eight hours a day allows both parents to work outside of the home. 

Even as a temporary measure, school closures and social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 was a significant challenge for working families with young children in the spring. 

“Last Spring, we made it work. We thought, ‘it is just a few months and we will figure it out,’” said Melissa Munster, mother of a fifth grader, a third grader and a preschooler in Lyme-Old Lyme schools. “If we were to be remote or hybrid this fall it would be a really big challenge for our family.”

According to Bye, families and daycare facilities alike have been counting on schools to fully reopen in September. Today, just 57 percent of the pre-pandemic daycare capacity is available statewide. Many facilities that have been closed since March, were planning to reopen in September with the start of the school year.

But the hybrid model, Bye said, complicates that.

Normal classroom instruction would allow children under 5 to enroll in all-day daycare and children over 5 to attend school programs, while parents return to work.

Hybrid models, said Bye, make that routine and structure impossible for families and care providers. District by district these models expect some students in the classroom two days each week, others are expected to attend for half-days, and others on an every-other-week basis.

During out-of-school hours, parents will be looking for daycare, said Bye “and we do not have enough childcare to cover this.”

Last year 5,200 children of families earning less than half of the state median income received subsidized after-school care from the state. This fall, most of these children will need periodic, full-day care, predicted Bye. 

“We didn’t have enough childcare supply before this and now you want to double the children that need childcare of some kind?” said Bye, shaking her head. “It’s a big issue for child safety.”

“All these kids are now coming back to the public school classroom after being in different childcare cohorts,” said Bye. “In my mind, hybrid may not actually be a good thing for preventing the spread of the virus.”

Without school or licensed daycare, many families are turning to neighbors and other families to form a “pod,” basically a group of children, similar in age, supervised by a parent, a hired nanny or tutor, while the other parents are at work.

In other words, unregulated family-based childcare.

“As the person in charge of childcare, I’m really anxious because I know there is not a supply and without good options children will be in unsafe environments, unregulated care,” she said.

Posts advertising “pods” have been a staple of community and parent Facebook pages throughout the summer.

“If Lyme-Old Lyme was not returning in-person we would have to consider forming a pod with other families,” Muster said. “We are hoping it won’t be necessary.”

But for relatives of the Munsters in nearby Haddam-Killingworth, a decision by the district to adopt a half-day, two-days-per-week hybrid model, apparently has the parents in a bind.

“My brother has two kids in that system and it’s going to be tough for them, they’ll need help,” Mark Muster said.

Ironically, the solution that some districts on the hybrid model are proposing — school-based daycares — offers little if any health benefit over full-day classroom instruction.

“Schools, cities and towns can set up childcare without a permit, so some communities will be offering childcare when school is not open,” explained Bye. “Don’t ask me how that is any different COVID-wise from offering school.”

As of Friday, Bye said she had received requests from at least 10 districts to set up in-school daycare.

Other districts, like Old Saybrook, are putting together childcare resources for families to choose from outside of school. 

“I know that childcare is a concern for some of our parents, so I worked with Heather McNeill at Youth and Family Services to pull a team of town agencies and private providers of childcare together,” explained Jan Perruccio, superintendent of schools in Old Saybrook. “Heather was able to get a flyer that offers multiple options from the YMCA and some of our private groups for the school-day and after-school care from private agencies and Parks and Rec for after school.”

“Schools, cities and towns can set up childcare without a permit, so some communities will be offering childcare when school is not open,” explained Bye. “Don’t ask me how that is any different COVID-wise from offering school.”

But these supplements to hybrid instruction will still involve children gathering and potentially spreading the virus with yet another group of people.

“All these kids are now coming back to the public school classroom after being in different childcare cohorts,” said Bye. “In my mind, hybrid may not actually be a good thing for preventing the spread of the virus.”

Better, Bye said, would be to have students gathering with only one group of children.

Several childcare centers and family-based facilities have remained open, with limited capacity, despite the pandemic and none have yet had a significant outbreak of the virus.

But it has never been a zero-risk option.

“Schools are used to operating at zero risk, but that’s not possible here. It won’t even be after there is a vaccine,” Bye said. “What we are trying to do here is mitigate risk. As a state we’ve done a good job of that. The schools asked for guidance, they asked for metrics to feel safe with and the state provided. And then, they just didn’t follow it. I just don’t understand.”