Step inside a California preschool during the middle of a worldwide pandemic, and you’ll see face masks on every staff member and thermometers by each of the doors. Happily for the parents of the toddlers inside, California has been allowing child care facilities to continue in-person care under COVID-19 safety guidelines.
At the Ross Academy Montessori School in Mill Valley, you’ll find preschool kids in groups of 12 or less, playing mostly by themselves outside, in order to follow state guidelines.
“We take their temperature at the door and they always have to wash their hands when they come in. Parents must stay outside of the building at all times,” said Jill Quam, co-owner and head teacher at the Ross Academy Montessori. “Once the kids wash their hands, we have them set up work areas about 6 feet from each other.”
While California child care facilities are able to offer in-person day care, California still prohibits counties on the state watchlist for COVID-19 cases from opening in-person K-12 learning in the fall. Counties must be off the watchlist for 14 consecutive days until schools can reopen, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Michaela George, a professor at Dominican University of California with a Ph.D. in global public health, said preschool children are less likely than older kids to transmit the virus to other kids and adults.
“What we can tell, at this point, is that even though some young children are testing positive for COVID-19, they do not seem to be spreading it to other children or adults,” George said. “We don’t know why because we don’t have enough information on the virus yet to really understand that.”
George said it is more dangerous to open campuses with students 10 years old and above since they are more likely to spread the disease — to other kids and to adults — than are kids under 10.
“A study came out that showed children under 10 seemed to exhibit symptoms of the virus in a very different way than children older than 10, and we don’t really know why yet,” George said. “Most elementary schools have children 10 or older. From a public health standpoint, that would be a reason why preschools are able to open and not elementary schools.”
Not only do kids at older school levels spread the virus more easily, but the schools themselves are frequently physically less safe than the setting of preschools, which tend to have less movement from room to room.
“When we get into older schools you have children walking from classroom to classroom,” George said.“They have hallways, which typically do not have any ventilation. You have a lot of movement on campus. A preschool with much younger children doesn’t have the same movement through campus.”
At Ross Academy, Quam said she is ensuring a safer environment that limits the spread of COVID-19 by doing more outdoor activities with the kids, and constantly disinfecting all of the areas used.
“We do a lot more activities where we’re outside. We also open the windows. After they work somewhere, we wash it down. All the teachers also get their temperatures read when they enter the building, and then we have to wash our hands and wear a face mask or face shield. Throughout the days there’s a lot of disinfecting and cleaning,” Quam said.
George argues that the population size of older schools also puts everyone more at risk than in preschools.
“There’s typically a large number of students and staff on elementary, middle, high school campuses as opposed to preschools,” George said. “Preschools tend to be private, with 15 staff members and about 40-50 kids, whereas my daughter’s elementary school has 625 students and 50-75 staff members.”
Beginning July 14, the state provided guidelines for child care facilities to follow that included keeping a social distance between children at all times. Additional rules limit groups to 12 or fewer kids at one time and require staff to wear masks or face shields while working.
In Marin County, one of the many Bay Area counties placed on the state’s watchlist, many preschools have been adjusting to protocols and working to offer care safely during the pandemic.
“If one of our students or teachers tests positive, that whole group that’s been exposed will be closed down,” Quam said. “Everyone in that class will be required to quarantine for 14 days. Then they need to get tested and if they test negative, they can return as long as they’re not showing any symptoms.”
According to George, because testing in the Bay Area has a long wait for results, one outbreak of cases in a preschool could shut it down for a long period of time.
“The tricky thing about this virus is the signs in young children — things like rashes, runny noses and fevers which children get all of the time,” George said.
“The problem with COVID-19 is that the symptoms are very similar,” she added. “Children can get these symptoms, they can shut down preschools, and in the Bay Area we can be waiting for 12 or 15 days for a test result. The testing is so awful that the preschool would probably remain closed.”
There were fewer than 11 cases in Marin County involving child care kids and staff, according to July 12 data from the California Department of Social Services’ child care program.
Statewide, there were 998 total cases linked to child care facilities as of July 12, according to the department.
George does think that it will be possible to open older levels of schools safely while still limiting the spread of the virus, but she feels there are many obstacles to overcome.
“I don’t know if we have enough physical space to space the students out, (and) I also don’t think we have enough training for staff and teachers — I have not seen the training for cleaning and providing PPE,” she said. “If you consider older children who have their driver’s license, I also don’t know how well schools would be able to ensure that the cohorts being put together in the high schools would be the only cohorts that those children will have access to.”
George pointed out that it is easier to track the whereabouts of younger children, while older children have more freedom to do and see whom they want.
“I have quite a bit of control over my younger children. I can tell them where they can or cannot go because I take them there,” George said. “With a 16 year old, if you said to them, here are the 12 people that you’re allowed to see for the next year, do you think that they would only see those 12 children? I do not think that that’s the case.”
Another barrier limiting schools being able to open are those members of the public who do not listen to safety protocols to wear masks and socially distance.
“Take smoking, we know that smoking is bad for you, we know it causes lung cancer, however we have not been able to completely change people’s behavior. There is a disconnect between what people know is bad for them and what they do anyways,” George said.
“We know that if everyone wore a mask, we would be able to stop the spread of this disease — maybe not entirely, but we would be able to slow it significantly,” she said. “However, people are not wearing masks, so how can you ask schools to open when not everyone is following the guidelines?”
As of right now, every public and private school in Marin County other than pre-schools will begin their school year with remote learning online, according to Ken Lippi, the assistant superintendent at the Marin County Office of Education.