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SC child care centers have wide flexibility under McMaster's coronavirus mandates

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Many child care service providers have continued to operate throughout the pandemic, even as COVID-19 cases climbed. Experts say school districts could glean valuable information from their success. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Schools and colleges are switching to long-distance learning, restaurants are serving only takeout meals and all other businesses deemed nonessential by Gov. Henry McMaster have been forced to shut their doors as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

But private preschools and child care facilities are not included in McMaster’s coronavirus-related mandates, leaving it up to the owners to make difficult decisions, such as whether they should close, on their own.

Gail Cunningham, director of Young World Day Care in Clinton, grappled with these decisions firsthand last week after two teachers at her family-owned day care facility were tested for the COVID-19 virus.

The business opted to not inform parents that the two employees were being tested, “under the advisement of DHEC,” Cunningham said in a video message posted on the center’s Facebook page Friday.

“I did what DHEC advised us to do and told her to finish out her quarantine ... and not to cause a panic,” she said.

It was only after one of those teachers tested positive did Cunningham and her staff decide to close the facility, effective March 31.

“(DHEC) told us that we did not have to close. They told us that we did not have to tell everyone. They told us that we would just communicate with the parents of the children in that specific classroom,” Cunningham said.

A state emergency response team spokeswoman did not initially answer questions about whether Young World Day Care was instructed, either directly or indirectly through previous statements, to not warn parents ahead of an employee's results, but said it is "not generally recommended to quarantine contacts of those being tested until results come back." 

"There is currently no recommendation that notifications be made when a staff member is being tested," said DHEC spokeswoman Cassandra Harris in an email Sunday, noting that there is a delay between the time that someone is exposed to the virus and the time they become contagious and show symptoms.

If a day care employee does test positive for the virus, all parents who have kids at the center might not find out about it. The decision to notify parents "is made on a case-by-case basis depending on the timing of symptoms, who may have been exposed, etc.," Harris said.  

If an employee tests positive for the virus and was inside a childcare facility while potentially contagious, "beginning 48 hours prior to the onset of symptoms until criteria to stop isolation are met," then it is recommended that the center temporarily close for two to five days "for thorough cleaning and disinfection, while communicating with staff, students, and parents," Harris said. 

"DHEC works with childcare facilities to follow CDC guidance, which is extensive and evolving," Harris said. 

Cunningham and other staff ultimately decided to reach out to all of the day care’s parents individually to inform them of the news, she said. Later that day, her father was admitted to a hospital with COVID-19-like symptoms. He was confirmed positive for the virus the following morning.

The center is tentatively scheduled to reopen on April 15, according to a Facebook post.

As of March 24, 45 percent of the state’s 2,419 licensed child care providers have closed their doors as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Most of them are all small businesses, they’re not mega-type businesses where they have a huge source of income to stay afloat without children actually being physically present,” said Fedrick Cohens, president of S.C. Early Childhood Association.

Day cares and preschools are in a strange position right now, Cohens said.

They provide vital services to parents who work as first-responders, medical professionals, grocery store clerks and other jobs that still require them to report to work amid the pandemic, but they also provide an ideal setting where the virus could quickly spread among students.

“Most of the day cares are not open because of their fear of COVID-19,” he said.

For those day cares or preschools that have elected to remain open, many of them are operating with limited services and low enrollment, Cohens said.

As a result, many child care and private preschool employees have been laid off.

Some 745 employees working in child day care services filed for unemployment the week of March 22, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. More than 650 elementary and secondary school workers across the state also filed for these benefits.

Lee Stevens was one of them.

Stevens is the director of The Acorn School of Charleston, a small, pre-kindergarten learning facility. As a private facility, it was up to them to decide whether to close, he said. Much like they’ve done in the past for inclement weather, the school chose to follow the actions of the Charleston County School District and close its doors at least through the end of April.

The last day the facility was open was March 13. Since then, all tuition payments have been suspended and all staff members laid off.

“We don’t have vast financial resources to cover payroll unless there is money coming in,” Stevens said.

Now, he and his staff have been forced to join the other thousands of workers attempting to navigate the state’s unemployment system.

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“I waited eight hours for a return call the other day,” he said. “On a practical level, that’s been a challenge.”

But what he misses the most is being able to see the school's students every day. 

Filling a need

More than 115 day care operations have closed in Charleston County alone, according to the S.C. Department of Social Services. 

To help medical workers with backup child care, Charleston County School District has partnered with Roper St. Francis to implement a two-week pilot day care program for kindergarten through fifth-grade students at Memminger Elementary.

“It’s a big impact for (employees) in their daily lives,” said Melanie Stith, vice president of human resources at Roper. “I have one single mother who basically said this program was going to be a godsend because she had been working with piecemeal child care backup options."

The child care operation has implemented different protocol and screening techniques to hopefully ensure parents, staff and the students themselves are not jeopardizing each other by spreading the virus.

“I mean with coronavirus, we can't guarantee anything, and you know all we're doing is kind of the best we can do under the circumstances,” Stith said.

All students and staff will have their temperature checked daily before entering the building, and groups will be limited to six students per classroom.

Staff members and children will practice social distancing throughout the day, food will be served with gloves, and playground equipment and other frequently touched surfaces will be cleaned throughout the day, according to CCSD Chief Operating Officer Jeff Borowy. The building will be sanitized and deep-cleaned each night.

In Berkeley County, parents at Daniel Island Academy were informed on March 21 that a student who attended the preschool had tested positive for the virus, and anyone who entered the facility after March 9 could have potentially been exposed.

Two days later, parents were informed that the child’s case was actually a false positive. They only needed to pursue testing if they began experiencing symptoms, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath.

Erica Fox decided to pull her child out of the preschool when she found out schools were closed. She said Daniel Island Academy stayed open for a few more days before eventually closing. 

Fox wasn’t scared after she saw the first message alerting her that her son had potentially been exposed — “I honestly think that everybody’s going to get it” — but she was confused about how a student was issued a false positive result.

“Somebody obviously doesn’t know what they’re doing in terms of the testing and how accurate they’re testing,” she said, emphasizing that she did not fault the school in any way for the confusion. 

Daniel Island Academy did not respond to requests for comment.

Tuition troubles

Many day cares and preschools have also been forced to grapple with whether they should charge parents during the crisis. 

Stevens said the Acorn School suspended all tuition payments once the school was closed. 

"It was pretty obvious that that was what we had to do, once we realized that parents were out of work and this is an unprecedented crisis," he said. 

When the school reopens, "the payments for those services will be expected," he said. 

Fox said she's paying 50 percent discounted tuition for her 4-year-old at Daniel Island Academy even though the school is temporarily closed. 

"I think that’s fair. I do know some parents who are very unhappy about it, but the teachers still have to get paid," she said, and teachers are still posting online activities to keep students entertained. 

Some day cares have extensive waiting lists. Requiring parents to pay tuition even when a facilities' services are not being used, such as when a family goes on vacation, is a way to reserve students' spots, Cohens said. 

"I would hope that, because of the situation that we're in, that they have been a little bit more empathetic," he said, "But I can’t even imagine the amount of people that are probably still paying for that slot.”

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif. 

Jenna Schiferl was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. She has worked as an education reporter for The Post and Courier since 2019.

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