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Is It Time to Send Your Kid Back to Daycare?

How to make the call.

As the U.S. begins to open up stores and workplaces, daycares are following suit. After all, childcare is necessary for the economy — and a major part of the reopening equation. But are daycares safe while we add tens of thousands of coronavirus cases to the tally every day in the United States? As with all things in this virus, it’s a complicated calculation.

“Many reopening choices are about personal versus societal responsibility,” says Dr. Logan Spector, Division Director of Pediatric Epidemiology and Clinical Research at the University of Minnesota. “This is really encapsulated in little kids. They’re not bearing the brunt of the virus, but they can spread it.” In other words, you can send your kid to daycare, and chances are they’ll be ok. But could the move harm others? Most definitely.

As you might have guessed, it is nearly impossible to properly social distance in a facility packed with grabby toddlers. This must be taken as a given and so daycares are a very real risk of spread. “The problem with young children is that they’re not as into hygiene as they could be,” says Spector. “The kids crawl salivate and excrete all over the place.” So there’s a risk. How much of one depends on a host of factors including where you live, who you live with, and who you’re in contact with on a weekly basis. The decision to go to daycare is, in other words, is one that balances personal safety and societal harm. It’s a calculation that, given the lack of federal guidance here, is one individual families will have to make themselves. 

The Risk of Daycare to Your Family

Sending your child to daycare does mean you risk them getting COVID-19. However, most children infected by the coronavirus don’t get very sick, and some don’t have any symptoms at all. “Children themselves are very, very low risk,” says Dimitri Christakis, the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s.

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Another risk of daycare is that your children could pick up the virus and bring it back to your family, who could develop severe COVID-19. The harm here is less clear. One recent review couldn’t find any cases of a child under age 10 transmitting the coronavirus, according to a report from Science last week. However, that finding isn’t conclusive. “There’s no evidence that kids transmit this less than adults,” says Tina Tan, a professor of pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Experts won’t know how contagious kids are until much more data is available.

If your child has an underlying condition that puts them at risk of severe COVID-19 — including diabetes, moderate to severe asthma, or a serious heart condition, to name a few — keep them home, Christakis says. Similarly, if someone in your family is in a high-risk group, keep in mind that your child could introduce the virus to your household. Don’t forget that younger adults can get seriously ill too.

The Risk of Daycare to Society

Though your choice to send your kid back to daycare is an individual one, it has widespread effects. Just like adults, many children with COVID-19 don’t appear sick. If they don’t have symptoms, they could still spread the disease to daycare staff and other children. This is why Spector is “much more inclined to worry about society when it comes to reopening daycares.”

For Tan, this means making the calculation to wait it out. “In areas of the country where there’s still a lot of coronavirus disease circulating in the community, I would say it’s not safe at this point in time to reopen a daycare center.” If you don’t have to put your child into daycare because of work requirements, it’s best not to, she adds. And if you’re concerned about their education, try lessons from home and virtual playdates, though not all young kids are willing to play that way.

Just when is it safe to open daycares? “When hospitals have the capacity and frontline workers have enough PPE gear,” says Spector. “Social distancing isn’t about squelching the virus, but spreading out the spread enough to give the capacity to deal with its inevitable spread. Once we’re convinced society can handle the number of cases that will come from loosening up, that’s when we should be comfortable with reopening daycares.”

Sending your child to daycare is a risk for your family and for your community. But so is going to the grocery store and work. Depending on your situation — and if your child hasn’t come into contact with anyone who has COVID-19 — daycare may be a risk you need to take.

Making the Daycare Decision

Some daycare centers are safer than others. Little kids aren’t going to social distance, but staff can still take efforts to reduce contact. For example, experts recommend that they only take in half the amount of children as they usually would. They should also stagger drop-offs and pick-ups so a crowd doesn’t form at the entrance. And every child and employee should be screened before entering the daycare and, with greater consistency that pre-COVID times, obviously sick kids should be sent home.

Shop around, and find a daycare that is taking the necessary precautions. Here are the questions you should ask:

  • How often do you clean and disinfect the facility?
  • Do staff members wear masks at all times?
  • How are staff members social distancing in the daycare center?
  • How do you get the children to social distance?
  • Have you canceled group activities?
  • What is pick-up and drop-off like?
  • How many children will be in the daycare center at a time?
  • How often do you have the kids wash or sanitize their hands?
  • Do you screen every child and staff member for COVID-19 symptoms before they enter the facility each day?

If you choose a daycare that answers these questions to your satisfaction, you’ll minimize your child’s risk of picking up or spreading COVID-19. And unless you confine them to the house, minimizing risk is the best path. Going out, even for necessities, is risky. And if putting your kid in daycare is necessary for your family, just do it as safely as you can.