PORTLAND, Maine — Maine child care program owners are making their own rules about forcing staff and families to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Maine's Office of Child and Family Services does not require child care staff to get the vaccine but encourages them to do so. Kids under the age of 12 are not eligible for the COVID-19 shot, and kids under the age of two should not wear masks indoors, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That combination makes kids vulnerable to the virus. According to the latest data from the Maine Center for Disease Control, 12 kids under 5 are in hospitals across the state with the virus right now. That makes up almost one-quarter of the people under age 25 in the hospital.
With kids susceptible to COVID-19, and no vaccine or masking to keep them safe, child care providers are taking it upon themselves to protect some of Maine's most vulnerable by requiring their staff to get vaccinated.
"It was an obvious choice to keep our kids safe," said Hollie McLachlan, owner of Chickadee Infant and Toddler Care in South Portland.
McLachlan is requiring her staff to get vaccinated. Her business is brand new and opens on Monday.
Some child care providers are grappling with whether to require families of students to provide proof of vaccination.
"Those parents being unvaccinated are really providing a link to the disease to that whole child care," said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth. "You can't tell kids to cover your cough because they're 18 months old. There are a lot of layers you can apply in schools that you can't apply in day cares."
"There is no one way that a child care program is handling the situation," said Tara Williams, executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, a non-profit that focuses on supporting kids and families from birth to third grade, and the teachers that work and care for them.
Williams said she hopes any guidance from the state for K-12 programs will also be applied to child care programs.
"At times when it didn't seem to be coming or it was delayed, it left directors and owners in times of confusion and uncertainty, trying to make decisions that are really heavy and weighted when it's the health of the children in their care," said Williams.
She said parents should ask their child care provider some questions to learn about their policies and procedures, including:
- Do you require staff to be vaccinated for COVID-19?
- Do you require families of students to provide proof of vaccination?
- What are your policies around masking, distancing, and outdoor time?
She said providers appreciate having consistency in guidance from the state so that parents are not confused as to why one location has some rules different from others.
In a statement, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson wrote:
The Department continues to encourage staff of child care facilities to be vaccinated against COVID-19, to protect their health and safety and the wellbeing of the children in their care who are too young to be vaccinated.
Vaccination offers the best protection against the virus, which is why child care staff were among the first groups made eligible for the vaccine earlier this year. Vaccine remains free and widely available throughout the state.
Our child care licensing specialists stand ready to answer any questions facilities may have about access to vaccination for their staff. The Mills Administration continues to support businesses’ efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 and keep their establishments safe, including child care facilities, by exercising their right to require employees to be vaccinated.
Maine child care providers have performed admirably throughout the pandemic to serve their communities and keep children safe and healthy. As of today, 98 percent of child care providers are open statewide, up from a low of just over 50 percent at the start of the pandemic.