- Associated Press - Saturday, August 29, 2020

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - As they return to the classroom for in-person learning this fall, Connecticut teachers have many questions. State officials say some of the answers may come from the day care centers that have remained open throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Between 1,500 and 1,900 child care programs have stayed open since March. There have been fewer than 50 reported COVID-19 cases among those centers and only 10 among children, according to the state’s Office of Early Childhood. The day cares and day camps have had an infection rate of less than 1 case per 1,000 people tested, according to the office.

“It was probably safer in day care than it was in general population, just like it was safer as a nurse than it was in the general population, if you take the necessary precautions,” Gov. Ned Lamont said.

Nancy Walsh is the chief operating officer at Educational Playcare, which has had 20 day care centers open in Connecticut through the pandemic, catering to essential workers like doctors and police officers. She said they kept those centers safe, in part, by keeping children in small cohort groups. During the height of the outbreak, pods were limited to 10 kids per teacher and were recently increased to 16. The pods are not allowed to interact with each other.

The centers also have mandated daily temperature checks for anyone entering the building, required masks for all staff members, conducted frequent cleaning and disinfecting of all touch points and toys, and required lots of hand-washing for everyone. They also have barred parents from entering the classrooms; staff either walk the children in from their cars or meet them at the door.

“This might be more difficult in schools, but keeping as few people from entering the building as possible is important,” she said.

Walsh said Connecticut’s teachers might be surprised this fall at how readily children, even those at the kindergarten and preschool levels, adapt to those safety rules. Most, she said, are eager to be active participants in keeping their families and classmates safe and will follow the example set by teachers.

“We’ve done it in a positive way with the children, not making it seem in any way punitive,” she said. “We just have them understand what it is to be physically distant from somebody and why.”

Liz Humphrey, of Simsbury, has a 6-year-old son going into 1st grade and a 4-year-old daughter in preschool. She said her kids have felt both safe at day care and empowered by the rules.

“Both my son and my daughter feel proud and they kind of get this little look in their eyes like, ‘Oh, I’m doing something really important when I put my mask on,’” she said. “We’ve been talking a lot about how they are doing these things to support their community and they love feeling like a part of that.”

Humphrey said she hopes the local schools follow the day care’s lead, especially when it comes to prioritizing the mental well-being of the kids.

“It’s making them feel comfortable and safe, and not in the anti-germ safe, but kind of in the heart safe,” she said. “Making them feel cared for, making them feel like everything is going to be OK and normalizing this.”

But Walsh acknowledges that it’s not been possible to keep very young children in masks. She said by ensuring their teachers are wearing face coverings, limiting their exposure to that small cohort of friends and providing them with as many outdoor activities as possible, they have been able to avoid any outbreaks.

But she said the masks have caused a communication obstacle that schools also will have to deal with. The children, she said, can’t read facial cues through their teacher’s masks. That means the teachers have to make an extra effort to let kids know when they are pleased or displeased or worried or excited by something the child has done.

“There are many other ways to communicate to children,” she said. “Obviously talking to children, singing to children, using eye contact with children. We use sign language in our programs and I’m sure the teachers in the public schools could quickly pick up on some signing things to do as well.”

Beth Bye, the commissioner of the state Office of Early Childhood, said schools, like the day care centers, also must make communication with parents a priority.

“When there have been cases, even if they are kept to the cohort, the child care’s have notified everyone in the program, so every parent knows what’s happening,” she said.

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