As a professional in early childhood education, odds are the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t passed you by. You’re probably considering what the outbreak could mean for you, and how you can protect yourself and the children in your care.
We know there’s already a great deal of coronavirus coverage out there. But we wanted to sort through it all to give you the simplest, most up-to-date advice on how to prevent illness spreading at your child care setting, and how you can prepare for potential disruptions.
We’ve sourced our information from the US-based Centers for Disease Control and the UK’s National Health Service, with additional resources from the Mayo Clinic, World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School. We also got in touch with Dr. Juan Dumois, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, to talk about how child care settings in particular can protect themselves against the virus. You’ll find additional reading and resources in each hyperlink below.
Let’s get started.
How concerned should I be?
First, some good news: So far, it seems that children are much less vulnerable to the coronavirus than adults. According to the World Health Organization, only 2.4 percent of all recorded cases of COVID-19 have been in people under age 19. Of these cases, the vast majority have been mild illnesses, comparable to a seasonal cold. This is to say, the children in your care are not at great risk.
Of course, the outbreak is more complicated than just a personal health issue. For one thing, containing the virus is critically important to make sure the most vulnerable in our society are not in danger. What’s more, the coronavirus may interrupt our daily routines — how we socialize, where we shop (and what’s available), and how we work.
So, while you’re unlikely to personally be in immediate or life-threatening danger right now, you should consider how the outbreak might affect you and your community.
Adjusting your environment
Before we get into any changes to daily practice or behavior, let’s look at how your physical setting might affect the risk of infection.
- Disinfect early, disinfect often – Research suggests that the coronavirus can reside on surfaces such as glass, plastic or metal for up to nine days. The CDC recommends disinfecting tables, door handles, and other “high touch” surfaces using household disinfectants a few times a day, especially before and after meals.
- Remove germ risk items – As the outbreak gets worse, it may be worth considering temporarily removing higher risk toys from your environment. In an email interview with Famly, Dr. Juan Dumois writes: “Temporarily put away small toys and other objects with which the children come in contact that are difficult to clean. We did that in our own hospital waiting rooms years ago.”
- Encourage hand hygiene – Consider hanging posters illustrating thorough hand-washing techniques near the faucets at your setting, and make hand sanitizer readily available. Remember to only use hand sanitizer that is 60% alcohol or more.
- Anticipate possible shortages – Again, the coronavirus is more than a health issue. You may want to stock up with an extended supply of cleaning products, soap and hand sanitizer, dry goods, sanitary products, paper towels, and other essentials.
Changing children’s daily practices
As you probably know from flu seasons past, childrens’ sanitary habits aren’t great, even on the best of days. It’s impossible to expect them to be models of good hygiene now, but there’s a few things you can do to help reduce the spread of germs in your setting.
- Explain what’s going on – Jacqueline Sperling of Harvard Medical School writes, “Try to strike a balance between answering questions well enough without fueling the flame of anxiety.” Gather your class together and explain just what they need to know — Reinforce that they are not in danger, but they should still be careful about germs so as to help keep others healthy. Children do see what’s happening, and keeping them in the dark will only increase fears and anxiety. Be open, honest and comforting.
- More hand-washing – Schedule in hand-washing breaks throughout the day, and make sure children know how to wash their hands thoroughly. Little ones may need your direct help. You should be scrubbing for at least 20 seconds — And for inspiration, here’s a few songs with 20-second choruses you could sing.
- Sneezing 101 – Educate children on how to properly cough and sneeze. Direct it into a tissue or your elbow, and wash your hands afterward, says the CDC.
Planning for potential disruptions
You’re not the only one concerned about the coronavirus. Your friends, neighbors, team members and nearby businesses are all thinking about how it may affect them too. If you work together, you can have a stronger response. Here are some ideas on how:
- Have a plan of action – Take time to develop an action plan for responding to potential closures or shortages. You should have an idea on how you might react and adapt to staff absences, learning gaps due to missed sessions, payroll interruptions, and methods of contact with parents. You might want to look at the CDC’s example for inspiration.
- Reach out to your local authorities – Check whether your local health departments have issued coronavirus preparedness plans, and also touch base with your local child care regulatory agency or local authority. Be sure your preparations are in line with their plans.
- Team up with other child care providers – Talk to other child care and preschool programs in your area to share information that could make your plan better. Discuss ways programs could work together to produce a stronger response and pool resources.
- Reassess your ratios – If the outbreak gets worse, the UK is considering temporarily relaxing rules concerning pupil-to-staff ratios in child care settings, so as to better accommodate sick leave for staff. Consider how you might change your daily lesson plans, room organization and schedules if you have to operate with missing staff.
- Check your insurance plan – In the UK, Nursery World reports that some child care settings have found that their insurers do not cover them in the case of a COVID-19 outbreak, as the disease is not yet listed in the insurer’s policy documents. If you have insurance for a public health closure, take a moment to review your policy and contact your insurer.
Expert perspective: If you suspect COVID-19 at your child care setting
In the case that your team members or the children in your care become unwell, and you have reason to believe they have been exposed to COVID-19, stay calm. Take a deep breath.
The NHS recommends the following steps:
- Call your local hospital or non-emergency number and explain your concerns.
- Find a room where the individual can be alone behind a closed door, and open a window for ventilation if possible.
- Advise them to avoid touching all surfaces, objects, and others, and to sneeze and cough safely. This room will need to be disinfected once they leave.
- Wait for medical professionals to arrive to bring the patient to a hospital for treatment and testing.
Then, identify all staff, children and parents that may have had been exposed to the suspected case. Close contact is defined as being within 1.5 meters of the individual for more than five minutes, or by making physical contact. The NHS recommends that these exposed individuals enter two weeks of home isolation, to be certain they are not infected.
Last week, the New York Times reported school closures across 3 continents, which would affect over 290 million students.
In his email interview with us, Dr. Juan Dumois clarifies that closing your child care setting entirely should be done only in coordination with local authorities.
“With regard to a general outbreak of COVID-19 in a community, the closure of a single center would likely have little effect. Therefore, it may be best for centers to wait to follow the recommendations of their local public health authorities,” Dumois writes.
A note on face masks
There are widespread misunderstandings on whether wearing a face mask can help protect you against the coronavirus. Generally speaking, they are only helpful when interacting with a COVID-19 patient — which, as Dr. John Dumois explains, is an unlikely scenario for most of us.
“It’s much more likely that people become infected by touching a surface recently contaminated by virus from the hands of a sick person. Therefore, proper cleaning of hands prior to touching one’s face is much more effective than wearing a mask,” Dumois writes.
“Try to think of the last time you remember someone coughing or sneezing In your face. Now think of when was the last time you touched an object in public that may have been recently touched by another person. That’s a much more likely scenario.”
Masks should not be in your child care setting. Not only will they do little to prevent chance infections, but they encourage panic, and decrease supplies for the medical workers who have a genuine need for them.
Communicating with staff and families
As you adapt your daily practices, it’s also important that you stay in close contact with the parents and team members at your child care setting.
- Stay informed – Look to reliable sources for the latest news on the coronavirus, and action steps that you can take. The CDC in the United States or the NHS in the UK have both set up dedicated resource pages for educators to respond to the pandemic as it develops. As a teacher and a leader, you should discourage undue panic, and patiently correct any misunderstandings about COVID-19.
- Brief your team – Hold a meeting or send a message out to your team updating them on any adjustments you’ve got planned, and make sure everyone is informed on the symptoms and signs of COVID-19. Provide links to local health and administrative agencies’ response pages for COVID-19, and emphasize the importance of clear, two-way communication during this period.
- Reach out to parents – Email parents and staff to share helpful tips and show you’re on top of things. In a recent article for the UK-based Nursery World, child care provider Rebecca Swindells lays out excellent points for communicating with parents:
- Think about a Plan B – In the unlikely scenario that you should have to temporarily close your child care setting, think about how that might affect your parents and team members. Provide suggestions to where parents might find alternative child care options based on your knowledge of the local child care community.
Coronavirus in the US: Sick leave strategies
In the United States, COVID-19 presents a particular challenge to the child care sector, because paid sick days are rare and working remotely is impossible. As you and your team plan your response to the coronavirus outbreak, it’s worth acknowledging the conflict it presents.
The Nation writes, “The Center for Disease Control advises people to stay home if they are sick. But for that good advice to make any practical sense, the rest of the government needs to tell people how they’re supposed to do that and still make rent.”
Your team shouldn’t have to decide between meeting necessary expenses and protecting their colleagues and the children in their care. If your center does not offer employees paid sick leave, it’s time to have a conversation about setting aside emergency funds to enable the policy, at least for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak.
If full paid sick leave is financially impossible for your child care setting, you should strongly consider adopting a middle-ground policy that allows employees to be safe and responsible about their response to infection.
Considering that 90 percent of surveyed US professionals have gone to work with cold or flu symptoms, managing sick leave expenses will ultimately be easier than dealing with a full closure.
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