BATH, Maine — Childcare workers across Maine are asking the state's public health leaders to change COVID-19 quarantine rules so kids can stay in classrooms and families do not have to miss work as often or for as long.
There is no COVID-19 vaccine yet for children under age 5, many of whom are in childcare. Pfizer and the FDA said in mid-February that it would delay its evaluation of the vaccine for kids in that age group as it gathered more data about the efficacy of a third dose.
After that news, members of the Family Child Care Association of Maine, Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, Maine Head Start Directors’ Association, Starting Strong's Parent Council, and the YMCA Alliance of Northern New England wrote a letter to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine Department of Education, and governor's office.
In that letter, they asked for shortened quarantine times and more testing options.
Under the current guidance, a child who tests positive must quarantine for five days since the last exposure, test on the fifth day, then wear a mask for five more days.
But kids under age 2 are not required to wear masks, leading to an inevitable 10-day quarantine.
Those childcare workers want a "test to return" option: a negative test result allowing kids to come back to class. They also want asymptomatic kids to be able to stay in class.
"Parents were very frustrated and angry with us at times because our guidance did not align with what the schools had decided," Annie Colaluca, director of preschool for the Bath Area Family YMCA, said.
Kids were ending up in "serial quarantine," as she called it, when a kid gets exposed to COVID-19, quarantines for 10 days (per Maine's guidance), comes back to school for a day, gets exposed again, and has to go back into a new 10-day quarantine.
"Parents are constantly bracing, so when they are picking their kid up at the end of the day. 'Any COVID-19 cases today?' 'Where are we at with COVID?'" Meg Helming, director of advocacy for the YMCA Alliance of northern New England, said. "Childcare providers are stressed, but it's only because the families we serve are under incredible amounts of stress and disruption in their lives."
Kids out of school means parents are out of work, in many cases.
"It's the hardest day to have to call families and tell them that their child has been exposed," Colaluca said. "It feels like we disappoint them."
The state makes pooled testing available for childcare facilities, but Colaluca said the process is time-consuming, requires extensive training, and is less efficient than allowing parents to use at-home tests.
Wednesday, Maine announced it would shift from recommending universal masking in schools and childcare facilities to making masks optional. "The recommendation is going from universal to optional masking. The Maine CDC will continue to recommend that school systems, child care providers, and individuals at higher risk of getting and sharing COVID-19 wear masks. Local decision makers may also decide to continue the universal masking option," Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long wrote.
Colaluca said a vaccine for kids under age five would be a game-changer for keeping kids safe in childcare facilities, and reducing the disruptions to their learning and for parents working.
"The rules change when you become vaccinated. We're not there in childcare. WE don't get that luxury to move forward because we work with the youngest children who are still most vulnerable who do not have access to vaccines yet," Colaluca said. "Our job is to keep the children safe and healthy and protect our programs and to remain open as much as possible for families."
Helming said she met with Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah and Maine Office of Child and Family Services director Dr. Todd Landry on Tuesday to discuss the changes. She said the discussion was positive.
"Additional information, including updates to isolation and quarantine guidance, will be provided through an Updated Child Care Guidance release by the Office of Child and Family Services in the near future."