AUSTIN (KXAN) — After keeping her kids home during most of the pandemic, an Austin-area mom said it was time to get them back around friends and a learning setting. 

The family made the shift and enrolled their two kids under five back in child care.

“At first, when the COVID numbers were getting better, we were at a more comfortable risk level, we were comfortable with that decision,” said the mom. “What was difficult, though, was when we started to see the roadmap of COVID cases rising, that there was no change on behalf of the child care centers in terms of their protocols.”

The mom wanted to protect her family’s privacy and didn’t want to share her name but said she was concerned about the latest protocols at some child care centers including where her kids were going. 

“When I would walk in the school there weren’t, you know, parents weren’t wearing masks. There wasn’t… temperature checks, you’re walking in a hallway where multiple families were gathered,” said the concerned parent. “There just wasn’t a uniform, coherent policy and portrayal of what COVID protocol should look like.”

She found the same to be true for many of the child care centers she researched in the Cedar Park area. So, she explained she pulled her kids out until she found something her family was comfortable with during the pandemic. 

“I ended up putting one in an at-home daycare, almost in a more in a pod situation,” she said. “And then the other one in, you know, like a proper preschool. So, it’s been, you know, it’s been really difficult.”

Why some are not relaxing protocols

At Mainspring Schools in Austin, they’re hearing from parents with similar concerns. 

“Some families come to us specifically, because they weren’t comfortable in the child care environment that they were in previously,” said Jason Gindele, Executive Director of Mainspring Schools. 

The school has been around for nearly 80 years and offers an early childhood education program. Gindele explained right now they have almost 400 students on a waitlist.

For about a year now temperature checks, masking, sanitizing and requiring parents to drop off and pick up outside only have been part of everyday COVID-19 protocols at the school.

Staff monitors children and if anyone has symptoms they are sent home and can’t return until they get a negative COVID-19 test.

Mainspring teacher with her class during the pandemic (Courtesy Mainspring Schools)
Mainspring teacher with her class during the pandemic (Courtesy Mainspring Schools)

“It has been exceptionally challenging to work in this environment,” Gindele said. “We weren’t immune to seeing COVID get inside our school. And so we saw a small round in the October time frame and another small one in November. And then we’ve been clear for much of this past year up until a few weeks ago, in July, we had a few more cases of the delta variant that infiltrated our walls.”

Gindele explained in July the school had three students under 3-years-old and four vaccinated staff members test positive for the virus. 

Gindele said they closed various parts of the school depending on proximity and exposure to those who contracted the virus.

“The vaccination in our staff really kept things at bay. And our kids throughout the pandemic really haven’t been infected by coronavirus,” he said. “That’s changed all of a sudden. And so now this new variant or new variants are affecting kids, and they’re affecting staff even with the vaccination. And so for us, it means keeping our protocols in place without any relaxation of those.”

Across Texas COVID-19 cases surging

Child care providers are required by Texas Health and Human Services to report positive COVID-19 cases for both children and employees in licensed child care centers, school-age programs and before or afterschool programs.

As cases continue to increase across the state, so are numbers at child care centers, according to the data posted online.

Mainspring Schools signage posted about spreading germs (Courtesy Mainspring Schools)
Mainspring Schools signage posted about spreading germs (Courtesy Mainspring Schools)

In June, 234 cases for both kids and employees were reported to the state. By July, the numbers hit more than a thousand cases. In August so far, positive cases have nearly tripled since last month hitting nearly 3,000 cases.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 560 children in Central Texas have tested positive for the virus and 734 employees working at child care centers.

Travis County has had the most cases in child care centers among kids and staff since March 2020 and reported 637 cases, followed by Williamson County which has had 403 cases.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) said it is closely monitoring the current situation with COVID-19. 

“The safety of those in HHSC licensed and regulated facilities, such as child care operations, is of the utmost importance to HHSC,” said Danielle Pestrikoff, Assistant Press Officer with Texas Health and Human Services.

Pestrikoff said HHSC does not currently track violations specifically related to COVID-19. “Operations that fail to meet relevant Minimum Standards (including but not limited to those related to reporting communicable diseases, notifications to parents, and health practices) are cited appropriately,” she explained. 

The Governor’s Strike Force to Open Texas has a list of recommendations for child care centers, which was updated in May and based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. It includes strongly encouraging kids age 10 or older to wear masks, intensifying cleaning and disinfection efforts and implementing screening procedures.

Giving parents a voice

The recommendations also explained child care centers can add other protocols to help protect employees and kids.

Joyce Strain said she's been able to stay open because of COVID-19 protocols in place. (Courtesy Joyce Strain)
Joyce Strain said she’s been able to stay open because of COVID-19 protocols in place. (Courtesy Joyce Strain)

Pestrikoff said the checklist for child care centers is being updated to reflect the latest links. She encouraged checking out the CDC guidance on schools and child care programs, which was updated on Wednesday.

“We’ve kept everything in place as far as you know, keeping parents outside. Drop off and pickup is still continued to be outside. We still take temperatures at the door. If children have any COVID type symptoms we make sure that they cannot come in without a doctor’s note,” said Joyce Strain, owner of Hippo Learning Station in Hutto and Pathways Child Development Center in Round Rock.

Strain explained most recently, they had a handful of positive cases in late July. She said her team has been working closely with parents and gathering information through a questionnaire.

“I think for us, it’s just been more about being in tune with our parents — giving our parents of voice,” she said. “What do they feel would be best for their child? What do they want to see in place, because it’s their children that they’re having to worry about when they leave them with us.”

Pandemic staffing shortages

Strain added a big hurdle has been staffing. She said she’s hiring but it’s been hard to find qualified educators compared to before the pandemic.

“It is difficult, I still want to hire two more employees,” Strain said. “It’s not like it was before the pandemic to where I had a choice of who I wanted to hire. You know — which one would be the best one that I want at my center.”

According to the state, more than a thousand child care centers have closed since March across Texas.

An August report by the National Association for the Education of Young Children showed 86% of child care centers across Texas are experiencing a staffing shortage, with 53% of affected programs serving fewer children, and 35% unable to open classrooms.

Push for consistent COVID-19 requirements

Some parents including the mom who reached out to KXAN investigators said the state needs to do more to keep children and employees at child care centers safe and healthy.

She said most don’t even align with what school districts are doing and there is not a lot of oversight. She added all child care centers should be required to follow CDC guidance.

“The question that keeps me up at night is, you know, outside of myself, my husband, who is invested in the children’s health, I mean, there with these people eight hours a day,” she said. “Are we going to see that our state cares about this population, this extremely vulnerable population who just cannot get vaccinated? That’s, that’s really what keeps me up at night.”