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Chicago says child care centers may reopen June 3; many likely to delay until later

High angle photo of a child drawing.
Child care centers and day care programs must comply with additional strict health and safety measures.
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Chicago will reopen its child care centers on June 3 and parks and libraries on June 8, as the first steps in a cautious move toward reopening the city, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday.

Still, the mayor warned that COVID-19 is far from gone. Even as parks will reopen, summer camp programs will not open until July 6 and will run for a limited time.

“Our kids can start using libraries and park facilities west of Lake Shore Drive,” Lightfoot said in her announcement of the city’s move toward Phase 3 of the city’s reopening next week. But, she warned, “we are still living with COVID-19.”

Child care centers and day care programs must comply with additional strict health and safety measures and submit a reopening plan ahead of the first day. Many center operators say they will wait to open later in June or early July so they can train staff, purchase protective equipment and cleaning supplies, rearrange classrooms to accommodate fewer children, and set up new protocols.

Once they move to reopen, providers say they likely will start with only a few classrooms.

“We’re not going to rush to bring in all 700 kids on the first day,” said Rey Gonzalez, the CEO of El Valor, which is among the city’s largest community-based child care organizations. “It’s going to be a step-by-step process and phased in.”

Gonzalez said one of the factors determining a reopening date will be how much protective equipment his agency can secure; right now, he only has enough for about a week of operations. He’s also waiting for more information from the city, such as whether Chicago will make available coronavirus tests for children, staff, and parents.

How to reduce risk is top of mind. Providers must protect children as well as employees, who tend to mostly be women of color. COVID-19 has caused deaths among Chicago’s African-American and Latino residents at significantly higher percentages than its white population.

“Our employees live in communities that have been hardest hit,” said Bela Mote, CEO of the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, another stalwart community child care provider in Chicago with 1,000 children enrolled pre-pandemic. Mote, who served on a city task force that worked on the reopening guidelines, said she will delay opening to families by at least two weeks so that her center can hold in-person staff days first.

“We can develop a lot of policy manuals, and we can do a lot of internet trainings, but you actually have to be in the building to see how it is going to be brought back to life,” she said.

Among Chicago guidelines: Teachers must wear masks or face shields inside and outside the classroom. Children over age 2 likely will be required to wear masks to enter and exit the buildings, in hallways, and on playgrounds. Children 5 and older are encouraged, but not required, to wear face masks in classrooms.

Providers have worried how children will react to teachers in masks.

Similar to the state, the city will limit the number of children per classroom to eight infants or 10 toddlers and older children.

The city guidelines also require providers to conduct health checks at the door that screen children for temperature and illness symptoms.

The guidelines limit outdoor play on equipment owned by care facilities, and only then in small groups. Centers may not use shared equipment, such as those in public parks.

Smaller class sizes and strict building capacity limits will mean centers won’t be able return to full enrollment for the foreseeable future — meaning fewer spots for children and possible tuition increases for centers that take private payments.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s phased economic reopening plan has been on a faster timeline than Chicago’s. Pritzker said last week that health officials had deemed that reopening child care was a necessary step to return parents to work and that the health risks of operating centers with small numbers of children were low.

COVID-19 infections have been reported at lower rates among children, but a mysterious related illness has surfaced that affects small numbers of children, raising some concerns among parents.

According to WBEZ, health and government officials don’t have definitive data on what types of jobs put workers most at risk of infection. The state has clear employment data for about 20% of cases so far. Of those, at least nine reported cases were connected to day care centers in Illinois. During the stay-at-home orders, about 15% of the state’s child care centers remained open on emergency licenses.

Still, child care is a critical ingredient in economic reopening plans. Gonzalez, of El Valor, said that his staff was in discussions daily about how to reopen as carefully as possible. They’d just purchased portable hand-washing stations to place by the doors, purged soft toys that might retain germs, put stickers on the floor to signal safe social distancing, and started rethinking classroom layouts.

There’s a lot to consider, he said.

“What do you say to a family that’s really struggling to put food on the table? It’s a godsend to them that we’re opening again,” said Gonzalez. “Those are tough decisions, and we’re looking for more guidance to the city. We’re going to do our best.”

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