Shira Klein

“Not again,” I groaned. It was early October, and my three-year-old had just been sent home from school for yet another ten days because a child in her class had tested positive for COVID-19. This was the second time in a month that her class had closed. As every working parent knows all too well by now, I was in for ten days of the impossible: juggling full-time childcare with full-time work. 

Over 90 parents signed a petition this week calling on Orange County to change its policy on preschool closures. The effects of preschool shutdowns are monumental: there are 116,000 children aged 3-5 in Orange County, with over 66 percent of them in preschools. Evidence shows that interruptions in early childhood education hamper children’s cognitive and social growth. School closures also affect caregivers, especially mothers. A national survey showed that more than 1 in 3 female caregivers of children aged 0-5 were forced to stop working or reduced their work hours since the start of the pandemic.   

How many days must an early childhood center in Orange County close if a child tests positive? Due to weak communication, merely finding this information is like something out of a Halloween horror film. It takes an hour of searching just to understand who makes the decision – the CDC, the State of California, the County, or the preschool itself? For those lucky enough to arrive at the correct answer, which is the Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA), navigating the agency’s many webpages is just as confusing. Each contains a dozen hyperlinks to “important guidelines,” some of which link to obscure sub-subsections of the California Code of Regulations. Thinking of calling them on the phone? Hotline representatives bounce you around. Maybe email? A prompt reply will provide you with a hyperlink back to the OCHCA, and the cycle repeats.

All too often, the OCHCA disregards its own rules. The County’s Health Officer’s Orders stipulate that unvaccinated persons who are exposed need only quarantine for 7 days, as long as the individual tests negative for COVID-19 on day 5. But phone calls to nine preschools in the area revealed that OCHCA’s contact tracers extend closures to 10-14 days, as in the case of my daughter’s facility. Worse still, as a representative of California’s Licensing Division explained to me, “the guidelines only set a minimum for quarantine, not a maximum, so preschools can close for longer if they want.”

Preschoolers have been left by the wayside, unlike their older siblings. The OCHCA is quick to make accommodations for grades TK-12. According to the same Health Officer’s Orders, our TK-12 schools don’t require any quarantine whatsoever for children directly exposed to COVID-19, including children under age 12 who are still unvaccinated. Exposed, unvaccinated TK-12 students can still attend school as long as they are asymptomatic and tested regularly. Indeed, exposed, unvaccinated TK-12 students can even remove their masks at school for “activities where a mask cannot be worn, such as while  playing certain musical instruments.” Moreover, TK-12 schools rarely shut entire classrooms for days. Indeed, the State of California says that a “temporary school closure due to COVID-19 should be a last resort.” As the State Public Health Office, Tomas Aragon, announced last week, “all students must have access to safe and full in-person instruction and to as much instructional time as possible.”

No policy exists for preschools, however. Guidelines for our youngest children are absent from both the county and state guidelines. The result is closure after closure of 10-14 days at a time, disrupting the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of families. Vaccines for children under five are months away, Pfizer estimates; a solution must come earlier. 

County and state officials must safeguard the education and care of preschoolers, just as they do for older children. To be sure, infants cannot mask, so they stand to spread the virus more than, say, second-graders do. But older preschoolers are capable of masking, and do so every day they are at school. What makes their right to a stable education any less important, their parents’ need to work any less acute? The OCHCA needs to apply the principles guiding its TK-12 policies to preschools as well. Closures of early childhood centers should be a last resort, for the sake of children, their parents, and the economy.

Shira Klein lives in Orange. She is a mother of 3 young children in Orange County and associate professor of History at Chapman University.

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