August is ending, and September draws near. What this used to mean, and what it now means, for kids going back to school is the cloud over the heads of thousands of Massachusetts residents.
While some states seem to almost revel in the prospect of sending teachers and students into risky environments, and others have remained adamantly cautious, Massachusettsians have been a little perplexed, to say the least, about Governor Charlie Baker’s plans to reopen schools while simultaneously rolling back certain provisions of Phase 3.
Based on the conservativeness of MA’s COVID policy so far, it’s reasonable to assume that reopening poses less of a threat in-state than it would in other areas. However, there are no guarantees, especially amid a recent, and very poorly-timed, uptick in state COVID cases.
Public schools have been the focal point of the reopening debate for quite some time now, and while all concerns are legitimate, they seem to gloss over a related problem that has been going on, under the radar, since June.
Early childhood facilities, such as daycares, reopened as part of Phase 2, partly due to serious post-lockdown pressure from working parents. For many, returning to work was conditional almost solely on the ability of their young children to be supervised by professionals. Strikingly, it doesn’t seem like many professionals had a say in the matter.
Recently, Tori Jones*, an early childhood worker from the Boston area, contacted me and clued me in on her current working conditions. What she described seemed straight out of a nightmare. Routinely cleaning up bodily fluids may have been an unsavory occupational hazard pre-COVID, but scrubbing fecal matter off a rug, changing soiled garments, and trying to get kids to stop biting each other takes on an ominous new meaning when considering the present circumstances.
To make matters worse, there doesn’t seem to be much support for the workers themselves, either structurally or institutionally. The state acquiesced to the parents, and relinquished reopening protocols to individual facilities–in other words, to businesses. With a combined need to retain clients and appease parents, the concerns workers like Jones went largely ignored. She told me of one incidence where it took two hours for her to convince her boss to send a sick child home. She also noted that, after three weeks reopened, children were already starting to turn up absent with fever.
What follows is a Q & A with Jones where she goes into detail on her experiences in the post-quarantine daycare industry. The responses have been edited slightly for length and clarity.
BOSTON HASSLE: Who do you work for? Why wouldn’t they let the sick kid go home?
Tori Jones: My boss is the director of the school. He is not the number one in charge, however. Our school is in a synagogue, and the preschool itself is overseen by a board; the board is made up of synagogue members and parents (which are often synonymous). Most of the everyday operations, like dealing with sick children, are decided by my director.
The argument coming from my director and office manager was that we can’t exclude a child any time they have mild symptoms, because we will be having to keep kids home consistently, given how often small children exhibit symptoms such as runny nose or lethargy. I argued that small children with COVID usually only exhibit mild cold symptoms, and are much less likely to show the severe fever and lung issues that adults exhibit.
BH: Whose decision was it to reopen your specific facility? When did this happen?
TJ: The decision was made by both the Board and my director. A survey was sent out that asked parents if they wanted us to reopen and overwhelmingly they said yes, so my boss cited pressure from families as the main reason we reopened. We’ve been open since June 29th, the first day the state would allow us.
When we asked our boss why we hadn’t been included in the decision, he told us we could have responded to the survey he had sent out, despite it very clearly saying it was for parents.
BH: Would you say that there is a deficit of supplies and/or funding at your facility? Do you think you’d be able to get extra PPE or cleaning supplies if you requested them?
TJ: There’s not necessarily a deficit of supplies. We have plenty of gloves, bleach, and hand sanitizer. But it’s much more of an issue of practical application. We can only sanitize them so often, and frequently, directly after washing their hands they go right back in the mouth again. If we were to actually wash and sanitize hands the second they go in mouths, many of our children would spend their entire day in the bathroom. We were originally instructed to change clothing any single time bodily fluid gets on it, but this is quickly proving impossible.
BH: Who usually takes care of bodily fluids onsite? Are there janitors/custodians who might be in danger of infection as well?
TJ: We used to have consistent janitors but now that we have to limit how many adults are in a room at any given time. Most of the cleaning duties fall on the teachers. When there was feces in the rug, it was my job to get down on my hands and knees to bleach and scrub it. At the end of the day, a private cleaning company that specializes in disinfecting comes to spray down all the surfaces such as doors, counters, tables, etc. But as for toy disinfectant and cleaning up any bodily fluids during the day, that falls solely on the teachers.
BH: Is it hard to get kids to wear a mask? Has it been determined that some kids are too young for them?
TJ: That has been both determined by the CDC, the state, and the national government. We comply with the regulations set for us [by our facility] rather than altering them to make them safer. I’ve argued before that we can do more than the minimum requirements, but even the oldest children struggle with wearing masks, and it’s a daily battle with the teachers to try and enforce it, especially in this hot weather.
BH: In your opinion, what “proper precautions” would a child under 5 have to take for optimal risk reduction?
TJ: In my opinion a child under 5 would be kept HOME for optimal risk reduction. This is the age when a child wipes their nose on someone else’s arm and licks the wall to see what it tastes like. They are very sweet, but there is truly no way to keep them safe unless they are quite literally in a bubble. I don’t believe early childhood centers should reopen until there’s a vaccine.
BH: Can you tell me a little more about how early childhood workers are viewed by the state and the public?
TJ: Early childhood workers are one of the worst paid professions in the country. The average preschool teacher makes 33k a year. I could make more as the assistant manager of a fast food joint than I could as an early childhood teacher.
Because America lacks the public preschool options that most other developed nations have, most of our early childcare options are small and privatized. While this can have its benefits, representation is certainly not one of them. While public school teachers are usually able to join a union, there really aren’t many union options available to private early childhood workers. When I’ve attempted to look into unions, they all have a k-12 requirement that counts out early childhood workers.
Even people I respect refer to early childhood as “just playing with kids all day” and it’s considered a less-than career for those unable to teach older children. In reality, it has a lot of its own unique challenges that make it no easier than teaching high school.
I felt this lack of respect was relevant to the decision to reopen childcare in late June despite no public schools reopening their summer programs. Still seems wild to me that it was determined safer to open preschools than museums, movie theaters, etc. While I was going to work every day, my veterinarian told me I had to drop my dog off at the door because it wasn’t safe for customers to come into the building.
BH: What’s up with the parents? The main push to send kids to daycare is coming from them. What creates this mindset?
TJ: Our children are taught from a very young age that societal duty comes before your health. This mindset of being rewarded, and holier-than-thou, if we prevail and be productive to society in spite of illness follows us into adulthood and prepares us for a culture that can fire Americans at will if we dare take a day off from work, if, for instance, we lack childcare.
On paper, the answer should be easy–let parents stay home with their children. It wouldn’t be impossible to implement: a living wage for all parents that must stay home with their children, moratoriums on rent and mortgage, and adequate educational tools for all families, regardless of race, class, or district. This all costs money, though. Money that the United States government has been channeling out of education for decades.
Therefore, it’s been decided that both teachers and children should put themselves at risk so that parents may return to work. Unemployment benefits are drying up even in MA, and it looks the same across the country. Parents are unsure of how they’ll feed their families come fall as the benefits run out, and the idea of returning to work seems less like a choice and more like the only option their country is giving them. I don’t blame the families that are desperate for schools to reopen; the government is forcing them just as much as it is forcing us to choose between a livelihood and getting a deadly virus.
BH: Do you think that the danger caused by reopening the daycare is primarily a function of the State, the daycare facility, or a combination of both? Where does the responsibility lie, and for what exactly?
TJ: I disagree with the choice our board made to reopen, but I don’t think any specific daycare or school district is at fault for reopening. Parents are demanding it, and for many schools, this means either opening doors or losing enrollment and funding. If my school had chosen to remain closed through July, as others had, we would have had many of our families enroll their children elsewhere. This would very likely leave our school unable to reopen at all.
This was the case for many schools, daycares, and businesses in general. There are many small businesses that would much rather stay safe at home with their families, but with a lack of adequate help from the state and the nation as a whole, families as well as individuals are staring down impossible choices.
It’s very frustrating when the argument for reopening the economy so often comes down to, “Well, we can’t just let these businesses shut down and their owners starve!” We have seen, around the world, that there is another option–the government can provide a financial safety net for its citizens to get us through this unprecedented disaster, and prevent the nation from offering up its children for sacrifice.
Names in this piece have been changed to protect the subject’s anonymity.
Featured image via promarket.org