Can we safely open schools without placing students, teachers, and staff at risk? What procedures can be followed to reduce the risk? What restrictions can we reasonably expect students to comply with? It all seems like a dizzying set of unknowns. (Cue the Frozen 2 music.)
But at the same time, Illinois has permitted daycares to open ever since Phase 3 — under a significant set of restrictions to be sure, but open nonetheless. This ought to be a treasure trove of data on exactly these questions of risk.
The problem is, we don’t have the data. There’s no tracking of daycare outbreaks in the same way as for long-term care facilities. And here’s the reply I received to a query I sent to the Illinois Department of Health COVID-19 e-mailbox:
At this time we have not been provided with data in regards to childcare centers. We don’t know if that information will be gathered and analyzed.
Which means that, absent more extensive investigative reporting, all that’s available is a smattering of news reports, both here in Illinois and elsewhere (where procedures and guidelines vary).
The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 12 outbreaks at daycares, affecting 247 people, including 32 children.
News Channel 20, July 8, 2020, reported a daycare in which a single employee tested positive, but no other workers and no children.
In Texas, as of July 9, Texas Health and Human Services reported 1,799 positive tests — 1,207 staff and 592 children — at 1,131 child care centers. There are 12,222 centers open in the state, so this means that about 10% of centers had at least one case. How many of these are instances of an “outbreak” in which covid was passed from one child to another or from a child to an employee? That’s not clear from these numbers, but certainly many, and perhaps most of these cases were of a single person. As KVUE reports, citing the Texas Tribune, the state has been unwilling to provide more data, citing “protected health information.” And in any case, the state also relaxed, then tightened its requirements for daycares, so their covid prevalence is not a helpful statistic without knowing under what specific circumstances it was transmitted among staff or children. After all, if their employees did not wear masks, and Illinois’ do, that matters, too.
In Connecticut, NBC Connecticut reported on July 3:
About 1,552 daycares have remained open since the beginning of the pandemic. So how many COVID-19 cases have they experienced?
“I’ve heard of 20 to 30 at the most throughout the state while there have been 1,500 programs open over the past three months,” Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye said.
And on June 24, NPR reported
The Y says that during the lockdowns it cared for up to 40,000 children between the ages of 1 and 14 at 1,100 separate sites, often in partnership with local and state governments. And in New York City, the pandemic’s national epicenter in March and April, the city’s Department of Education reports that it cared for more than 10,000 children at 170 sites.
Working in early days, and on very short notice, these two organizations followed safety guidance that closely resembles what’s now been officially put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Y says a few staff members and parents at sites around the country did test positive, but there are no records of having more than one case at a site. This, among a population of essential workers.
In a separate, unscientific survey of child care centers, Brown University economist Emily Oster found that, as of Tuesday afternoon, among 916 centers serving more than 20,000 children, just over 1% of staff and 0.16% of children were confirmed infected with the coronavirus.
Of course, daycare centers and schools are not the same. But schools ought to be safer than daycare centers in most respects. Schoolchildren can be expected to wear a mask in the same manner as they are expected to comply with other school rules — that is, as long as we’re willing to enforce that demand and provide alternate schooling arrangements for students who won’t (and in cases where parents won’t reinforce that requirement). Schoolchildren don’t need to play with toys, don’t chew on toys, don’t need the same level of direct contact with teachers. And so on.
But, again, what will work and what won’t, in classrooms, depends on learning from what has and what hasn’t worked, in daycare rooms. And we can’t learn from that if we don’t have information.