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Why Kansas Child Care Advocates Say Day Care Centers Should Stay Open During Pandemic

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Lynn Horsley
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KCUR 89.3
The Children's Garden, a Montessori school in Roeland Park, is among the Johnson County day cares to have closed.

With all Kansas public schools ordered closed to slow the Coronavirus pandemic, some people are questioning why child care centers remain open.

One teacher at a private Johnson County preschool told KCUR that she thought keeping preschools and child care centers open didn’t make sense. She said other teachers also worried about whether those environments are healthy.

“Children are known carriers just like adults, and they may not even show symptoms,” said the teacher, who asked that her name not be used. “So all of these people are staying home and losing paychecks in order to ‘flatten the curve' ... Well we aren't exactly flattening a curve if children are still going to preschools.”

The teacher said her facility is closed for now. But many other child care centers in Johnson County and throughout Kansas are open.

Some officials strongly defended keeping child care centers open.

“We have people in our community that have to have daycare to go to their jobs,” said Eldonna Chesnut, who oversees child care licensing for the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment. “Society collapses without daycare.”

Chesnut said many essential workers such as first responders and health care workers are relying heavily on child care centers during the pandemic. “They have got to be at their jobs for the betterment of the community,” she said.

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Credit Lynn Horsley / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Eldonna Chesnut, who oversees licensing for about 900 child care centers in Johnson County, is urging those facilities to remain open to help working parents during the coronavirus pandemic.

Chesnut has fielded questions about why daycare facilities remain open, but said the best available science supports that decision.

“Our staff have looked at the scientific evidence, community need, available resources, and other factors,” she said in an email to facilities that the county licenses. “We are encouraging facilities to remain open.”

Chesnut helps regulate about 900 daycare centers in the county, with a capacity of more than 40,000 children from birth to age 12. She said a few have closed as a result of the epidemic but most remain open.

Chesnut was well aware children can still be carriers of the virus but said most child care facilities have far fewer children than schools do. Children appear less likely to get the virus and get it less severely, although Chesnut acknowledged that Children’s Mercy Hospital has reported a case from its emergency room and some children can get quite ill.

Dena Hubbard, a neonatologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital, told KCUR that children seem to be at least risk for COVID-19, but parents and caregivers should still emphasize good hygiene habits like handwashing.

Chesnut said she knew operators can’t keep kids 6 feet apart or ensure just 10 kids to a room, which are the CDC social distancing guidelines. But she added that childcare providers are trained in infection control and maintaining a healthy environment, including sanitizing of toys, frequent handwashing and other procedures to minimize health risks.

She advises them to take each child’s temperature daily before that child enters a facility.

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Credit Valerie Cable
Valerie Cable of the Daycare Connection, which refers parents to facilities in Johnson, Wyandotte, Franklin and Miami counties, says working parents need daycare options.

One daycare operator had received Chesnut’s advisory and hoped to stay open. But Jean Passantino, director of The Children’s Garden, a Roeland Park Montessori school, told KCUR that she had received thoughtful responses from parents uncomfortable with having their children in daycare, so her school remains closed for at least two more weeks.

Other daycare advocates agreed with the decision to keep facilities open.

“Would you rather leave children home alone?” asked Valerie Cable, executive director of Day Care Connection, which refers parents to daycare providers, mostly in homes, in Johnson, Wyandotte, Franklin and Miami counties.

She said many parents don’t have a relative or neighbor to babysit, and they can’t just park children in front of the TV for hours with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Since Gov. Laura Kelly ordered all elementary and high schools shut for the remainder of the school year, Cable said she has fielded calls from some parents, particularly in health care and public safety jobs, who are “desperate” for other options.

She has put out an appeal to about 600 caregivers, asking them to try to create slots for additional children. She said some are already answering that call.

Jennifer Hardesty, who has operated a Johnson County center in her home for years, said she is licensed for up to 10 children and is staying open because she knows the need is great.

“The state has urged us to stay open if we can,” she said, adding that she serves parents with essential jobs where they can’t work from home.

“They are very glad I’m staying open,” she said. “They would have no place for their children to go if I weren’t here. In a time of chaos it’s good for the children to have something consistent for them.”

Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.

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