The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care announced Friday that it is phasing out a federally sponsored COVID-19 testing program that thousands of child care programs across the Commonwealth have relied on for the past year.
The announcement — which came two weeks after the state’s childcare quarantine guidelines were eased but before the federal government approved COVID-19 vaccinations for children under the age of 5 — only increases uncertainty for daycare providers about how best to protect children and staff .
Quit the test program
In an email to child care providers, the state Department of Early Education and Care announced it will end the COVID-19 testing program later this month. The program, run by the non-profit neighborhood villages, provided testing to the centers each month and included a system for reporting and tracking positive cases.
The state’s contract with Neighborhood Villages expired at the end of this month, and childcare workers told GBH News this spring that they were concerned the program might not be renewed. Though the program is ending, the state says it will continue to offer providers quarterly free rapid antigen testing through the end of December.
The state is also closing drive-through testing sites in Braintree and Tewksbury that exclusively served child care workers and families with children in those programs. State officials have not yet said if they will continue to offer a “surveillance program” of weekly PCR tests, which several hundred childcare workers have been using.
One of the centers that participated in the PCR testing program is Temple Beth Shalom in Needham. The program serves about 220 children and is run by Ellen Dietrick, who told GBH News she is concerned the state will end PCR testing.
“I think testing is one of the only ways we have to protect these under-fives,” Dietrick said, noting that kids that age are terrible at social distancing and are still unvaccinated.
The state’s email on Friday said Neighborhood Villages will continue to offer a telephone hotline through the end of August “to assist in the implementation of recently updated guidance and other inquiries related to COVID-19.”
Easing of government quarantine guidelines
Around two weeks ago, the day care workers were uncomfortable with the new quarantine guidelines of the State Office for Health and Social Affairs.
On May 25, EOHHS announced that children are no longer required to quarantine if they have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19. The guidelines stated that these children should continue to participate in childcare programs and that testing for these children is recommended but not required.
The state says the changes were made to better align with guidelines for K-12 schools, after-school and camp programs. Still, some childcare workers felt less protected by the abrupt postponement.
“So in theory, you could have a young child who has a family full of positive family members — including their own parents … and under these guidelines, that exposure doesn’t mean the child should stay home,” Lauren Cook said. CEO of Ellis Early Learning, which serves 250 children at three day care centers in Boston. “And we’ve seen with Ellis, based on our experience, that there’s a very good chance a young child will test positive within probably five days of the parents being positive.”
The new guidelines also say children who test positive for an infection can return to childcare after five days of quarantine, as long as they are asymptomatic and able to mask.
However, Cook pointed out that many programs offer breakfast, lunch and a snack each day.
“So that’s three instances where kids are maskless,” she said. “And then naps usually last over an hour when kids are maskless.
Unlike public schools, most childcare providers are private organizations that can set their own rules. But Cook said she would likely be rebuffed by parents if her program enacted rules that are stricter than state guidelines. She said she plans to survey parents to see if there is support for a policy she felt would be more protective.
For the youngest, vaccinations have not yet started
The reduced testing program and quarantine requirements come before children under 5 can be vaccinated. That could soon change, as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are expected to approve vaccinations for the youngest children later this week. But it will likely be months before a significant percentage of children get an injection.
“At this point these little ones have no protection at all,” said Ellen Dietrick of Temple Beth Shalom. “There is nothing. And some can’t even wear masks.”
She stressed that childcare workers are also at risk.
“These teachers go into a work environment where nobody is vaccinated. You are the only vaccinated person in a room of 20 people,” Dietrick said. “So their protection is really crucial. I mean we have to protect them or we can’t run the program. If they are sick, it affects 20 families.”
Funding for childcare is uncertain
The uncertainty about testing comes as childcare programs also face the possible end of a government grant program that has helped keep them open during the pandemic.
A scheme called C3 grants (which stands for Commonwealth Cares for Children) was set up with federal funds last year to prevent childcare facilities from closing due to lost revenue from the pandemic. After the one-off federal funding is gone, the scholarship program expires this month.
“It was a stroke of luck,” said William Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, of the C3 grants. “It helped programs that were on the verge of collapse stay alive.”
Ellen Dietrick said the grants have been tremendously helpful to programs like hers in Needham.
“Most people use it to pay staff salaries, bonuses and everything to keep our teachers,” Dietrick said. “That’s the most important.”
Others used the grants to help when they were closed on rent arrears because of the pandemic, she said. And programs now rely on the means.
“A lot of us don’t know how to move forward without getting funding for the next month,” she said. “And I mean, we’re talking about three weeks.”
The future of the grant program depends on how things play out in the ongoing budget negotiations between the Senate and House of Representatives, Eddy said. This budget is due at the end of the month.
“We asked them to continue [the C3 grant program] for the six to eight months and hope they do,” Eddy said.
The Massachusetts legislature is discussing a possible increase in funding for early childhood education after a special legislative commission issued a report in March calling for a significant increase.
“The commission’s recommendation states that there are currently over 230,000 children who are eligible for subsidized care that they are not currently receiving,” Eddy said. “And that’s why they said we should prioritize trying to help them.
That prioritization is starting to show up in proposed House and Senate budgets, Eddy said, and he’s closely watching what emerges from their negotiations.
“I am confident that the state Legislature will make a record investment in early education programs and our workforce in the state budget for FY23,” said Eddy.