Early childhood educators across the state faced a new challenge this week: how to persuade their young pupils to wear masks.
The requirement, announced in a memo issued by the state Office of Early Childhood last week, became effective on Monday. It requires children as young as three years old to wear masks while in an early childcare or preschool setting. The memo also increased the capacity of childcare and preschool rooms from eight children in a group to 16.
The adults in those centers have already grown accustomed to wearing masks as a measure meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Pam Carey, director of Carriage House Daycare on Colony Street in Meriden, noted providers like her center had less than a week's notice to implement the changes, including alerting staff and families.
“Obviously it's going to be a little bit of a challenge. I think that it is definitely going to be an adjustment period for children — especially the younger ones,” Carey said.
The new requirements are disappointing for families, Carey said. “Especially the families of the three years olds — they're disappointed with this decision.”
“We have had these children, at least a majority of them have been with us, through COVID and before,” she said. “We were hoping to keep as much normalcy for them as possible. But that being said, even if we're disappointed with the decision, we will follow the guidelines.”
Mark Pooler, chief executive officer of the Southington-Cheshire Community YMCAs, said after the first day of mask-wearing at his organization’s childcare centers things seem to have run smoothly. He described the early stages of implementing the new requirements as a “trial and error, working through process.”
At this point, parents are required to provide their children’s masks, although the Y does have some extras on hand in case children show up without them. Parents have done well in ensuring their children had masks.
“Overall it went OK today,” Pooler said on Monday afternoon. “There were a handful of kids who were struggling with it, with eyeglasses fogging up, things like that.”
But, he said, “overall the kids did very well.”
The children do have mask breaks.
“Right now they are not required to wear masks when eating, during morning snack. For children three and four, who are resting at nap time, they are not required to wear masks during that period of time,” Carey said. Carriage House is working on how to create other scheduled breaks from masks throughout the children's days.
The new requirement offers an opportunity for the most creative among early childhood educators.
They will incorporate lessons about mask wearing, health and safety into their daily instruction, about how wearing masks “keeps everybody healthy,” Carey said.
OEC is making exceptions for children whose disabilities or medical conditions make wearing a mask difficult. Deaf or hard of hearing children, for example, often rely on seeing their teachers' mouths move so they can emulate those movements as they learn to speak.
Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye acknowledged those challenges during a phone call with the Record-Journal this week.
Bye said the changes were enacted to allow flexibility. For example, OEC is allowing providers until Oct. 19 to enact the rules.
“We know there are young children who need support through this process,” she said. “None of this is easy, even for school-aged kids.”
Bye said she also was pleasantly surprised to see how many programs had already implemented their own mask rules even before the memo had been issued, making compliance a relative non-issue.
Reduced childcare capacity
The masks pose an initial challenge as educators and children get used to them. Early childhood leaders, meanwhile are concerned about larger problems: the pandemic’s long-term impact on enrollment.
Typically the Southington-Cheshire Community Y had served more than 1,000 preschool aged children daily. Now they’re serving around 500, Pooler said.
That change in capacity reflects a larger trend. Childcare centers are working at about a little more than 50 percent capacity.
That’s because Carriage House and other early childcare providers and pre-schools have had to reduce their capacity during the pandemic. At first they were limited to group sizes of eight children.The limits have since increased, but not to previous levels.
Bye explained during a typical year childcare centers need about 90% enrollment to maintain financial viability.
Fewer of them are open, with several forced to shut down operations entirely. About 58% of the state’s childcare providers, including centers, group homes and family homes are currently open, according to OEC data.
Karen Rainville, executive director of the Connecticut Association for the Education of Young Children, said statistics gathered by that agency show 63 programs have permanently closed since the pandemic began.
“Our supply is still much lower than it was pre-COVID,” Rainville said.
Childcare centers stayed open throughout most of the pandemic’s duration, despite the financial difficulties incurred by lower enrollments, Rainville noted. Those centers’ operators recognized parents unable to work from home needed childcare options.
“So many programs stayed open,” Rainville said. Programs that have remained open have also adapted to constantly changing circumstances.
For example, with early childhood enrollment down, programs like Carriage House began offering families learning pods, allowing a classroom space for school aged children as old as 12 years whose families are hesitant to have their children back in a typical education setting, Carey explained.
The pods were helpful for families where the parents are unable to work from home.
Meanwhile, the prospect for an influx of federal aid for childcare providers is stuck in what Bye called “a political process.”
State officials have tried to boost programs with grants, including those for technology investments, and previous federal recovery funds.
Concerns about impact on child development
“I think there are real concerns,” Bye said. “We know that the first five years of life are when the brain is at its peak of making connections. If kids are losing six to eight months of high quality early childhood setting, if a lot of preschools close, that’s a real challenge. Those are connections that aren’t coming back.
“We’re definitely concerned. Kids are missing out on learning and missing out on high-quality care,” Bye said.
“The value of early childhood cannot be understated,” Rainville said. “It’s really preparing children for the social skills they need and supporting their learning.”
Even before the pandemic, some communities didn’t have the childcare capacity to meet families’ needs. Leaders worry this may increase existing gaps in learning and opportunity.
The changes will remain in effect for the duration of the public health emergency, according to the OEC memo.
The memo also states centers must create written policies around mask wearing and non-compliance through gentle reminders, for example. The memo states centers must provide those policies to staff and families.
The memo states non-compliant children shall not be excluded from their childcare programs or isolated from peers.
Children with documented medical conditions or disabilities, or who require speech and language therapy involving lip reading may remove their face masks periodically.
OEC is working to make personal protective equipment, including clear, see-through masks that enable lip-reading.
“I think kids adapt probably faster than adults do,” Rainville said. If there are children struggling, resources are available to support educators, including picture books that tell stories about different people who wear masks, including doctors, store clerks and superheroes.
“The teachers are really doing amazing work helping this be the new normal,” Rainville said.