Jasmine Strange of Plano gets up early during these days of the pandemic to get her young children ready for daycare before heading into work. The 30-year-old mother has to make sure 6-year-old Antonio and 1-year-old Jaydon wash their hands. And before she takes them to the child care center, she always tucks an extra mask or two and plenty of sanitizer into their backpacks —  just in case.

Thirteen-year-old Amya is a great help getting them out the door around 6:30 a.m. before she starts setting up her computer to tune in to online classes. 

As they arrive at the Kidz Station Childcare Center in East Plano, Jasmine and husband  Brandon are not allowed to walk their children into the classroom. Not like they used to, when they would visit with the teacher or other parents. Now all children are stopped at the door where an apparatus is aimed at their forehead for a temperature check. Parents have to say their goodbyes in the car.

“I worry because COVID is everywhere,” Jasmine says. “The teachers all wear masks and they’re doing a great job. I’m thankful for that. I don’t want my kids to get sick.”

All their safety measures seem to be paying off. To date, no COVID-19 cases have been reported at Kidz Station at 14th Street and Los Rios Boulevard, says Amanda Young, the center’s assistant director. But not every child care center is as fortunate. 

Across Texas — more so than the rest of the country — cases of coronavirus are rising at centers that care for children. And it’s coming at a time when parents are trying to start back to work and officials are weighing the safety of returning to school next month.

On July 20, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission was notified of 65 newly reported positive cases of COVID-19 (40 staff, 25 children) at 57 child care operations.

Since March, HHSC has been notified of a total of 2,394 reported positive cases of COVID-19 (1,617 staff, 777 children) at 1,450 child care operations. That’s up drastically from just 59 cases in mid-May. That’s a steep increase from just 59 cases in mid-May.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, which has published age information on just over 10 percent of total cases, more than 1,700 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in people ages 0-19 statewide. More than 500 of those patients are under the age of 10.

Young emphasizes that Kidz Station carefully follows the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and those laid out earlier this month in Governor Greg Abbott’s Open Texas Checklist for Child Care Operations and the Reopening Guidance to Child Care Providers

But the state’s changing regulations for child care centers over the last few months have been confusing for parents and administrators. In March when the pandemic was first taking hold in Texas, all child care centers were allowed to stay open as other businesses were forced to close. Then, in late May when other businesses began to reopen, child care centers were only allowed to serve children of essential workers, leaving many hourly workers at restaurants and other businesses scrambling for someone to watch their children so they could work and pay the bills. As more businesses opened, restrictions on child care openings were lifted only to have tighter regulations imposed on them as the number of caregivers and young children reportedly contracting COVID-19 began to soar.

Earlier this month, a 6-week-old tested positive and died from complications related to COVID-19 in Nueces County, where CNN reported that 85 babies under age 1 have tested positive for coronavirus since mid-March. 

Closer to home, three teachers at a church daycare in Denton tested positive in the last two weeks. A child care center in Royse City had to close temporarily last week when a child there tested positive.

In mid-June, 17 cases affiliated with nine day care centers were reported in Dallas County.

Experts say COVID-19 can affect children in various ways, including causing anxiety or putting them at risk if they miss routine health care while isolating at home. Health officials also aren’t sure to what extent children spread the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating reports that multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), which may present with Kawasaki disease-like features that include a fever and a rash, is showing up in children who may have been exposed to COVID-19. 

In response to a public information request from The Texas Tribune seeking a breakdown of total cases by age, geography and race, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission asked the state’s attorney general to agree that it need not release the data.  

HHSC argues it doesn’t have some of the information and the rest is “protected health information” under state law.

“Protecting the health, safety and well-being of people in HHSC-regulated operations remains our top priority,” Texas Health and Human Services Commission spokesperson Danielle Pestrikoff wrote in an email to Local Profile while emphasizing the emergency rules that child care centers need to follow.

Paying close attention to diligent sanitation methods are key to keeping Kidz Station free of illnesses, says Young, whose 9-year-old daughter also is enrolled at the center.

“We wash hands and sanitize surfaces 10 times more than we used to and we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing to keep our children safe,” she says. “The parents are counting on us.”

Children at the child care center are not required to wear masks but parents can request it, even encouraging it by giving their children cute character masks. But sometimes it only makes things more difficult, teachers say.

“It’s too hard to make them keep the mask on,” Young says. “Sometimes it only makes them want to touch their face and each other, pulling them off and even swapping it with a friend’s mask because they like it better.”

However, so many other sanitizing and distancing rituals have become part of the regular day for children at the center, she adds. 

In addition to daily temperature checks and limiting admittance into the building, Young says her center has stopped feeding family-style meals, as recommended by state guidelines. Instead, up to four children are seated at a table at one time and they are given individual plates. Also, only one class at a time is allowed outside when it’s time to play.

“The kids get it,” Young says. “We have to be very careful. It’s the new normal for them.”

While many working parents have no choice but to take their children to daycare so they can go in to work, many terrified parents have chosen to continue to work from home with their children by their side. As a result, the number of children in child care centers have dropped significantly from the 1.1 million Texas children who were in state-licensed and registered home daycare centers before COVID-19 struck.  Several child care centers have closed during the pandemic.

Kidz Station is among those feeling the effects of diminishing numbers. The center, which normally has an enrollment of 90, now has only 40 children coming on a regular basis, Young says. Instead of 12 teachers the center now has 5, one part-time.

Fewer children can mean more space to spread out and lower teacher-to-student ratios, Young explains. But that could change as businesses start to open and students start back to school.

Jasmine, who hasn’t allowed her children to hang out with friends during the pandemic, says her children can’t wait to go back to school in person to be with their classmates. The shipping supervisor for a manufacturer of automated machines says her children get educational support at the daycare but remote education is much harder and requires more one-on-one parent participation.

When school was in session in April and May she took off work at least twice a week to make sure Antonio was learning his letters and numbers. In between doing laundry and preparing dinner, she spent a recent afternoon going over a worksheet on the parts of a flower for her kindergartener.

“He’s at that age where he has such an open mind and I want to make sure he’s getting it and learning as much as he can,” she says. 

But now is not the right time to be back in the classroom with other children when COVID-19 is surging, she adds. 

“It’s just not safe,” Jasmine says. “I think it’s too soon.” 

So for now she plans to continue dropping them off at Kidz Station, where she thinks he can remain safe and continue to learn at a distance.

When deciding whether a child should attend day care or even summer camp, parents should consider the following, according to officials at Children’s Health.

  • How will proper hand hygiene be encouraged?
  • How will children and caregivers be screened each day?
  • What will be the ratio of caregiver/counselors to children?
  • What types of social distancing measures will be observed?
  • Will it be necessary for staff or older children to wear facemasks?
  • How will parent drop-off and pick-up be handled?
  • How will toys and surfaces be disinfected?
  • How will meals be served?
  • Do you have a plan if someone becomes sick?

Story has been updated to include the most recent numbers from the Texas Health & Human Services Commission, links to experts discussing how COVID-19 affects children, and information in regards to daycare workers testing positive for COVID-19.

Annette Nevins

Annette Bernhard Nevins is a Plano-based award-winning journalist who specializes in breaking news and features. She has held staff positions at several Texas newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News,...