As they searched for child care around Summit County, Maya Silver and Vicki Wickline were dismayed to find that not many places seemed to require masks or vaccinations for staff to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“They usually have a protocol” for families, telling parents “don’t send your kid” if the child is sick or has symptoms of COVID-19, said Silver, who lives in Kamas. But the 35-year-old mother said she didn’t find many precautions beyond that.

While there has rightfully been a focus this fall on keeping K-12 students safe during the ongoing pandemic, children too young for school have been “overlooked,” according to Kristen Schulz, a coordinator with Early Childhood Alliance. The Park City-based organization promotes “accessible” and “equitable outcomes” for young children in the Wasatch Back.

That’s why, after hearing concerns from Silver, Schulz sent a letter earlier this month to the Summit County Health Department asking that child care be included in a recent public health order requiring elementary school students to wear masks if their campus reaches a 2% COVID-19 positivity rate.

Specifically, Schulz asked that the order be updated to have licensed child care facilities in Summit County require:

• All eligible staff be vaccinated and wear masks at work.

• All children over the age of 2 wear masks, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

•Daily health screenings at drop-off.

Schulz and Early Childhood Alliance also requested that Summit County add COVID-19 infection numbers for residents ages zero to 5 to its online dashboard, which are currently provided for school-aged children.

“We’re undervaluing and underappreciating our child care system — which we do all the time — by not making this data available,” Schulz told The Salt Lake Tribune. Plus, “it’s a real disservice” to parents trying to make the best decisions they can for their families right now, she said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melissa Mendez, director of PC Tots Early Learning Center in Park City reads a book with Jovie Carte as nap time quickly approaches on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

On Monday, the Summit County Council voted unanimously to extend the public health order through the end of the year, but it was not altered to include child care.

“The fact that we’re still reporting deaths and hospitalizations for COVID-19, when the vaccine is available, indicates that there is still an emergency at hand,” Phil Bondurant, the county’s health director, told the council on Monday.

While 83% of eligible residents had been fully vaccinated as of Thursday, Summit County still had high transmission of COVID-19, like most other counties in the state, according to the local health department website.

”At this time we’re closely monitoring cases among all of our unvaccinated populations,” Derek Siddoway, county spokesperson, said in an email Friday. “There have been no indications of outbreaks or an uptick in cases related to daycare centers. Should trends indicate this is changing further action would be considered.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kids with PC Tots in Park City get their wiggles out before nap time during a neighborhood outing on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

‘A more needy age group’

After months of looking, Wickline hired a nanny, shared with another family, to care for her daughter, who is less than a year old. But she and her husband found a day care center their 2-year-old son could attend.

“I felt like it would be great for him to be around other kids,” said Wickline, 33, of Park City, and she could tell her son was “craving it.”

It’s been “stressful,” though, according to Wickline. The day care they picked in the Park City area has no vaccination or mask requirement. She has looked for other places to send her son, but has found a similar lack of protocols.

“It’s awful,” she said. “I constantly feel like I’m balancing my child’s safety up against the requirements and necessities of life.”

Both Wickline and her husband work full time, and having a nanny care for two kids was unaffordable. Having one of them quit to stay home with their children also “did not feel like an option,” she said.

“We’ve been trying to be cautious as possible,” Wickline said. Since their son started attending day care about a month ago, his parents have taken him to be tested for the coronavirus twice. And after he got a runny nose, the couple kept him home for 10 days to be safe, she said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Yuri Jarrieta, center, with PC Tots in Park City reads a book with Jovie Carte, left, and Jackson Ahlberg on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

“I am sympathetic, absolutely, to the challenges that must come with running that type of program and to the stress that the last 18 months has probably caused early child care programs,” Wickline said, with ever-changing rules and policies.

That said, “I feel like there are some pretty basic things that one could do that would greatly increase the safety of all involved,” she said. For Wickline, “the bare minimum” is for staff to either get the vaccine or wear a mask.

“If your school gets shut down and you have a 10-year-old, you can give them things to do and sit them in front of the TV,” said Silver. But with younger children, such as hers, who are 1 and 4, “you can’t work from home or … bring that kid to work somehow. It’s just a more needy age group.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Flor Barragan spends time with Danna Reyes, 7 months, as she gets some relief with a cold teething toy on Thursday, Sept. 23, at PC Tots in Park City.

The day care that Silver used in Kamas shut down in early September due to rent issues, she said. As Silver and her friends have looked for other spots in Summit County, she struggled to find places that offered the safety protocols she was looking for, with the number of COVID-19 cases still high.

Silver managed to get her children in at a place in Park City. But she is also on a waiting list for PC Tots, with about “35 to 40 [people] ahead of us at this point, so it could be awhile,” she said.

PC Tots, which is located in Park City, is associated with Early Childhood Alliance, highly encourages its staff to be vaccinated, and offers a $500 bonus for new, fully vaccinated teachers, according to the center’s protocols. Non-vaccinated teachers are required to be tested weekly. All staff and adults entering the facility must wear masks, and children over the age of 2 are encouraged to wear them, too.

Child care “is a hard job,” Schulz said. Before the pandemic, Utah’s current system was only meeting about a third of the need for child care in the state. In the months since, providers across the country have struggled to hire staff.

In Utah, there have been 156 COVID-19 outbreaks at child care locations, according to state data available Thursday, resulting in 720 cases, 12 hospitalizations and fewer than five deaths.

With COVID-19, child care workers are asked to do a job that can be “risky to their health,” Schulz said, because “they are in close contact with unvaccinated children,” holding infants, changing diapers and giving bottles.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jackson Ahlberg, 1, chills with a bottle on a kid-sized couch at PC Tots in Park City on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

‘Keep our kids safe’

With the Summit County Health Department’s COVID-19 dashboard, parents and teachers can see the levels of cases among school-aged children. As of Thursday, the website grouped infections in three age groups: 5 to 10, 11 to 13 and 14 to 17.

The Utah Department of Health provides a similar breakdown for schools statewide, as well as overall cases for 1- to 14-year-olds and 15- to 24-year-olds.

The state also lists the number of kids who have had multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, an extreme, rare condition from COVID-19, which can affect the heart, lungs, kidneys and other organs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data for MIS-C is separated by age for kids by age, with 0 to 4, 5 to 9, 10 to 14, and 15 and older.

Meanwhile, Salt Lake County Health Department breaks down cases, hospitalizations, deaths, patients in the intensive care unit, and people who on ventilators by age on its dashboard, grouping data separately for zero to 4-year-olds from 5- to 11-year-olds.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mateo Jimenez, left, and Jahssiah Arroyos join other 3-year-olds on a neighborhood outing with PC Tots Early Learning Center in Park City on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

There are still many “unknowns” with the youngest children, Schulz said, including the long-term effects of COVID-19, and when a vaccine might be approved for them. Pfizer recently announced that its vaccine is safe and highly effective in young children ages 5 to 11 years old, and “millions of elementary school students could be inoculated before Halloween,” according to The New York Times.

In the meantime, the Utah Department of Health has an 85-page manual available for those navigating child care during COVID-19. Utah’s Child Care Licensing Program has “been highly recommending the use of face masks and vaccinations for those who can do it,” Simon Bolivar, an administrator, said in an email.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Holding on to a tether to stay safe, 3-year-olds from PC Tots return from an outing before nap time in Park City on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

“Child care providers abide by many other rules and protocols in order to keep the entire community protected from COVID-19 and any other communicable diseases,” Bolivar said. “It is not just about masks.”

Since Summit County leaders already voted on the public health order, Schulz said she doesn’t think it is likely that child care will be added anytime soon. Summit County officials did not immediately comment.

Still, Schulz said she wanted to “make sure the elected representatives know that there are a lot of moms like Maya and a lot of other people who are like, ‘Hey, I really want to do everything we can to keep our kids safe.’”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carter Foster, 3, plays with other kids during a neighborhood outing with PC Tots Early Learning Center in Park City on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katie Cuellar, left, and Perla Moreno wrangle 3-year-olds for PC Tots during an outing before nap time in Park City on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.