Late or premature? Child care providers have mixed reactions as state lifts mask mandate

There is a wide range of reactions as Massachusetts lifts the mask mandate for preschools, daycare centers and other daycares on Monday. Some parents and providers say the move is long overdue. Others fear it is dangerously premature.

Children under 5 are the only age group without access to COVID-19 vaccines, yet they are simultaneously the group with the lowest risk of serious illness and death if they contract COVID.

The state policy change means that each child care center can design its own mask rules within the limits of local requirements. (Municipalities like Cambridge, for example, plan to keep indoor mask rules in place until mid-March.)

“Programs are all over the map,” said Sharon MacDonald, director of member services for the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, or MADCA. “There’s really no consensus there.”

Some programs — like Little Sprouts Early Education and Child Care, which has 23 locations in Massachusetts — waive mask requirements on the first day it’s allowed.

On Monday, Little Sprouts allows all children to unmask unless otherwise requested by a parent. Staff may also remove masks if they present a negative COVID test at the start of each work week. A letter to parents announced this step as “a return to a greater degree of normality”.

“We saw far fewer COVID infections in our schools in February than in January, and that’s a reason to smile, and that’s a reason to show another person that you care about your smile. And we are happy to be able to,” said Amanda Goodwin, who works at Little Sprouts and helps communicate its COVID policies.

Other programs – such as Milldam Nursery School in Concord – bring no immediate changes. Instead, the parents’ cooperative kindergarten surveyed its community to understand the family’s preferences.

“The vast majority of families are comfortable moving to mask-of-choice or mask-optional given the other measures that will be in place, particularly testing,” said Kate Damon, principal and teacher. in 3- and 4- Milldam tests children for COVID twice a week, once with a PCR test and once with a rapid antigen test.

Damon said the earliest his preschool will move to a mask-optional policy is mid-March, in part because the state is lifting the K-12 mask and childcare mandate on the same day as the children return from February vacation. Since many children are visiting extended family or traveling during the holiday week, this presents possible new exposures to COVID, Damon said. Her preschool decided to wait and see if there was a spike in cases after the trip before changing its pandemic policies.

Some have urged daycares and preschools to keep masks in place until vaccines are available for children under 5. Walter Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, said he was “certainly concerned” that states are scrapping mask mandates for daycares.

“Now is not the time to give up,” Gilliam said. “We are approaching the time when we can actually vaccinate young children. It’s just not right now. Why would we take away other protective factors that we have, like masking?”

Gilliam is part of a team that published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA, finding that masking children ages 2 to 5 was linked to a 13% reduction in daycare center closures due to of COVID outbreaks. Masking had a greater impact than any other factor considered, including social distancing and disinfection.

“Masking was the best thing available to these teachers … in terms of efficiency,” Gilliam said.

Regardless of what daycares and families think about mask requirements, it’s widely accepted that lifting the state’s mask mandate is a critical moment in a pandemic that’s been full of twists and turns.

“This is a watershed moment,” said Christopher Vuk, CEO of Rock and Roll Daycare, which has 10 locations in Massachusetts.

Vuk said child care centers across the country have been operating below capacity since reopening amid the pandemic. Rock and Roll daycares are about three-quarters full, he said.

Vuk said he believed many families initially kept their children at home for fear of the virus. Now he thinks the main deterrent is that families don’t want their children wearing masks for a significant part of the day. But with masks no longer required under state rules, Vuk expects enrollment to increase as more families return.

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