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‘The most crushing, anxious parenting choice’: To return to day care or not?

After initially keeping her home, Sara McClusky and her husband decided to send their 4-year-old, Beatrice, back to day care. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Like so many others, Sara McClusky first believed her family’s predicament was temporary: It was mid-March, a global pandemic had just been declared, and the normal routines of life in America were grinding to a halt. Which meant that McClusky, a 35-year-old content strategist in Reston, Va., and her husband were both working from home, and their 4-year-old daughter, Beatrice, was no longer going to day care.

Then the weeks wore on, with the threat posed by the novel coronavirus showing no sign of ebbing, and suddenly Beatrice started parroting new lines that she’d picked up from her overwhelmed, multitasking parents: “I can’t talk right now, Mommy,” she’d declare. “I have to join a call.” Other times, McClusky says, Beatrice would announce plans with friends both real and fictional — meeting her day-care pals for a scootering session, hosting a sleepover with Anna and Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen.” Those activities never came to be, and the despondent child once told her mom: “None of my friends want to play with me.”

When Beatrice’s small, in-home day care reopened in June, her parents kept her home, fearing exposure to the virus. But then McClusky started a new, less flexible job in July, and at that point the day care had been open for several weeks without any reports of illness. So the family decided to send Beatrice back.

Local or state officials have often been the ones to issue a verdict about whether school-age children will return for in-person classes, leaving parents little choice but to adapt. But parents of babies, toddlers and preschoolers have been faced with their own daunting decisions: Is it safe to let little children spend their days in communal spaces? How will it affect a child’s development if they don’t return to day care or preschool? What are the risks and sacrifices involved if they do?

And at a time when both our social behaviors and our understanding of the coronavirus are constantly changing, these are questions that don’t necessarily vanish even once an initial decision is made.

“At least once a week, my husband and I discuss if we’re doing the right thing,” McClusky says. “It’s honestly been the most crushing, anxious parenting choice we’ve made so far. Everything feels wrong.”

For most parents facing this quandary, the outcome is shaped by a complex array of variables: the demands of a workplace; the facts of a family's financial security; the presence of a medically high-risk loved one. Added to that calculus is the shifting number of covid-19 cases in a particular community, weighed against a child's age and developmental needs, and the level of risk that a family is willing to assume.

For Krista Ratcliff, 43, who lives in Austin with her husband, their 2-year-old son and Ratcliff’s 11-year-old son from a previous marriage, the prospect of exposure to a wider community was a dealbreaker. She and her husband decided to keep their toddler home, despite the challenge of juggling work and child care. Ratcliff shares custody of her older son with his father, who has a girlfriend with a daughter of her own, “so we have added exposure there that we can’t control,” Ratcliff says. “Our 2-year-old in day care could easily transmit the virus much farther than just our immediate family.”

Other parents, like Amy Rath, a 46-year-old director at a technology start-up in Chicago, say their decisions were ultimately driven by necessity. With her husband required to return to his company’s office, Rath could no longer do her work while caring for their 4- and 6-year-old daughters alone. Both girls went back to day care in early August, and Rath’s 6-year-old is now attending first grade remotely from there.

“We are concerned that we are making the right choice,” she says — especially because their older daughter has a compromised immune system, and Rath’s own mother died of covid-19 in May after contracting the virus at her nursing home. “So, yes, this all weighs heavily on my mind,” Rath says. “But I just can’t work at my job and have the kids home all day every day.”

This reasoning was echoed by Alex Gordon, a 39-year-old program director for an advertising agency and a single mom to her 9-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. Gordon had kept her daughter home when her day-care center reopened in April, but by midsummer there had still been no incidents reported there — and for months, Gordon had juggled solo parenting with her job, which meant setting an alarm for 4 a.m. so she could get in a few hours of work before her kids awoke, and then logging on again during her daughter’s afternoon nap, and again after her children went to bed. Gordon’s daughter has been back at day care since late July, while Gordon’s son is home, attending school remotely.

“I thought, on my surface, I was doing okay, but I would notice weird things — like for a week, my left eye twitched uncontrollably. I pulled my back out just sneezing one day. All those things where your body is saying: ‘You’re not actually okay,’ ” Gordon says. “I just realized, ‘Gosh I can’t do this for the rest of 2020. I’ll lose my mind.’ ”

Linda Kopp, a lawyer who lives with her husband and 3-year-old in Maryland, says she is disturbed by the lack of consistent information and clear guidance from officials. Her son returned to his day-care center at the end of June, Kopp says, but she still scours the news for the latest developments surrounding the virus.

What she finds is often confusing or conflicting: There are reports like the one from the YMCA of the USA, which noted in June that it had cared for tens of thousands of children between the ages of 1 and 14 since March and experienced no coronavirus outbreaks, according to NPR. But the following month, there was a widely circulated story about a YMCA sleepaway camp in Georgia where hundreds of campers and staff members quickly became infected. Numerous news stories have indicated that severe illness in very young children is rare, but one recent study showed that children younger than 5 with mild or moderate symptoms also have much higher levels of virus in the nose, raising new concerns about their ability to spread the illness.

Evidence grows that children may play a larger role in transmission than previously believed

“It’s so frustrating how the federal government deferred responsibility for decisions to states, and states are deferring responsibility to counties or to individuals, and — I don’t have a science degree!” Kopp says. “I appreciate that everyone has their own risk threshold, but our understanding of this virus is still evolving.”

After weeks of deliberation, Jenni Glenn Gingery, a 39-year-old mother in Rockville, Md., and her husband decided to move their 3-year-old daughter from a small, in-home day care to a larger center, where the enhanced safety protocols seemed more thorough and the communication with staff more official. “They seemed to be better equipped to handle the situation,” Gingery says. “They bought an actual robot that goes around and cleans the school. They’ve changed everything from how you enter the building to who is going out at recess. They’re doing a lot of things outside.”

Their decision brought relief to everyone in their household — “I felt like I was short-tempered, and not the best parent or the best employee that I wanted to be,” Gingery says — but she still worries about the consequences of a classroom with up to 15 children. “I can’t control what all the other parents are doing,” she says. “I’m sure most people are trying to follow the guidelines, but you just don’t know, and now we’re all depending on each other.”

That level of trust might feel unsettling to many, but Brandi Riley, a 41-year-old parenting blogger and social-media influencer in Oakland, Calif., says she has confidence in the community at her 3-year-old son’s preschool.

“We’ve all vowed to be in a bubble,” Riley says of the dozen families in her son’s class. “So we are not signing our kids up for any other activities. Our church meets outdoors, and we don’t even go to that. At drop-off, parents are not allowed in the play area or inside the building, and kids have to wear a mask as they go up to the gate to get their temperature taken. Parents and staff members have to wear masks at all times.”

Riley had already limited the contact between her children and other family members for months. “It’s heartbreaking, but my kids have not hugged their grandparents since March,” she says. “We go over there, in the backyard, and everyone except for the little one wears a mask. We are more than six feet apart. We’re being very, very cautious.”

Despite voicing anxiety over their circumstances, numerous parents interviewed for this story were emphatic about acknowledging a sense of gratitude and privilege — that they had relatively flexible jobs, or that they were able to find child care when they needed it. This is more than many families across the country can claim, says Melissa Boteach, vice president of income security and child care at the National Women’s Law Center.

“There were child-care deserts before. Now we’re talking about the Sahara of child-care deserts,” Boteach says. “For low-income families, for families of color, and families in rural areas as well — in places where there is not a sufficient supply of affordable and high-quality child care — what it adds up to is that parents face bad choices. And providers face bad choices. This is disproportionately Black and Brown women and immigrant women. They’ve spent their entire lives caring for children, building up women- and minority-owned businesses, and they’re disappearing in the flash of an eye. Parents are seeing the house of cards fall down. There are a lot of tears.”

Whatever the individual story — whether a family has had to send a child back to an environment that feels unsafe; or a parent (most often a mother) has left a job to care for kids at home; or a child-care provider has been forced to close their business, leaving parents with fewer options to consider — the takeaway message is clear, Boteach says: “Part of what this pandemic has laid bare is what we’ve known all along — that child care is a public good, just like clean air and water and roads,” she says. “It is basic infrastructure that allows the economy to function.”

Since Sara McClusky's daughter returned to day care, she has stopped talking about conference calls and imaginary playdates. "She is so much happier now," McClusky says. "She's so much more active — they're outside, they're running around, they're doing all the things a 4-year-old should do, instead of her sitting next to me, waiting for my meeting to be over."

Riley’s son is sleeping better, and he’s less clingy now that he’s back with his friends, she says. “Before, he had gotten to a point where he stopped playing with his toys. He just wanted to watch TV and get on his iPad,” she says, “and that has completely changed.”

Gingery says her daughter also seems far more like herself. “She is learning so much again,” Gingery says. “She learned the months of the year the other day; she turned to me and said, ‘Mom, it’s August!’ ”

Now August has become September, and fall is on the horizon, a new season that experts warn could be especially perilous. In a time of perpetual uncertainty, several parents said their choices — whether they’ve opted to keep their kids home or to send them back to day care — feel every bit as changeable as the reality around them.

Kopp says her son has now been at day care for about two months without incident. But she still watches the number of covid-19 cases in Maryland every day, and a few weeks ago, when the daily total approached 1,000, she wondered whether she should bring her child home. Then the numbers started trending down again, and she felt a little better. For the time being.

“It feels like every day, almost, you’re making the decision again,” she says. She sighs. “I try to keep telling everyone, please, just be kind. Because most everybody is just doing what they think is right.”