Is it safe — and ethical — to send your child to day care?

For parents who aren’t deemed emergency workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the decision can be agonizing

Two children at a small outside table.
Edmund and Peter Hannan, ages 5 and 3, have a backyard picnic during Minnesota's stay-at-home order. Minnesota’s stay-at-home order does not prohibit families from taking their kids to day care, but officials note that the goal is to keep providers open specifically for the children of emergency workers.
Courtesy of Paul Hannan

Every day, Paul and Katie Hannan of Minneapolis take their two boys to their Montessori day care. And every day, they reevaluate that decision.

The Hannan boys are 5 and 3 years old. They love school, their friends, their teachers. They even cry when they get picked up sometimes, so they, too, are grateful that it’s still open.

As COVID-19 has closed most institutions and public venues, including K-12 schools, Gov. Tim Walz has decided to keep child care centers and family providers open to help serve emergency workers. But many child care providers saw such a significant drop in enrollment that they can’t continue to operate during the COVID-19 crisis, especially during a stay-at-home order.

Those that have remained open, however, have presented the Hannans and other parents with a dilemma: Are they contributing to the spread of coronavirus by sending their children to day care? Or are they taking advantage of a vital service so that they can work from home during a time of economic uncertainty and widespread layoffs?

“For us, part of the reason we’re sending them, the state says that day cares can be open,” Paul Hannan said. “And we know they get a better education there, we’re able to actually do our jobs.”

Walz’s stay-at-home executive order allows health care workers, law enforcement and grocery store employees among others, to seek child care. In fact, the list of “critical sectors” is exhaustive, and technically Paul Hannan’s employer, a software company, is included. But he and his wife still wonder if sending their kids to child care is the right thing to do.

Paul spent hours online searching for answers and going down a rabbit hole about what is ethically and morally sound for society in this moment of heightened fear of COVID-19.

“Is our little school community its own little pod, and if we’re following the rules everywhere else, then if our school were to get it, society can handle that?” he asked. “Or is that a leaky faucet that can prolong it for society?”

Stay-at-home order

Minnesota’s two week stay-at-home order is in effect until Friday, April 10, but the spread of coronavirus will likely continue past that date. Officials have said 40-80 percent of Minnesotans could get COVID-19. Walz said he expects schools to remain closed for the rest of the academic year as social distancing measures continue but hasn’t made that official.

But social distancing is nearly impossible at child care facilities where children play together and teachers touch, hug and care for the children all day long. According to guidance the governor’s office provided to day care providers, families are ordered to stay home other than exempted activities like going to the grocery store, seeing the doctor and walking outside. There is nothing in that order that “expressly prohibits” families from taking their kids to day care, the guidance noted.

“However, this is not keeping with the overall message and spirit of the order and goal to keep child care providers open for emergency workers,” according to the guidance provided to child care facilities. “The governor is asking people to stay home unless they are leaving for work in a critical sector, and, as a result, families you were previously serving may no longer utilize your care during the period of the stay-at-home order.”

Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the number of children who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 in Minnesota has remained relatively low compared with the rest of the population.

There have been three cases under the age of 5 as of Sunday, according to MDH data. That’s less than 0.4 percent of total cases in Minnesota.

Children sit around tables.
Children sit around tables at the St. Paul Midway YMCA Early Childhood Learning Center.
Courtesy of the YMCA

Ehresmann said unless a parent is worried about an underlying health condition, day care is less risky.

“They’re not meeting with other people. The kids, their exposure, are all within the child care and within the family,” she said. “If they’re keeping it within that structure, we don’t have the risk of additional transmission.”

‘People need to make their own decisions’

Children transmitting the disease is a concern, however, because many are either asymptomatic or they don’t get severely ill from COVID-19, according to some studies.

Justin Lessler, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said if parents are sending their children to day care, they are likely creating a route for the virus to make its way into the home.

“People need to make their own decisions,” he said. “Children can get infected. It’s unclear how much they transmit because they don’t get very severe symptoms, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to believe they don’t transmit at all.”

Additionally, young children often walk around with runny noses and run fevers regularly — all without a pandemic. It might be hard to detect COVID-19 in order to take the necessary precautions. But many child care providers have implemented strict measures to keep COVID-19 out of centers and homes. They screen families at drop-off, limit outside visitors and clean more often than they have in the past.

The uncertainty of how the virus will spread in Minnesota has many families keeping their young children at home, forcing full-time working parents to merge work life and home life in unprecedented ways, and taking away income from the not-so-lucrative profession of early childhood educators.

Minnesota has an estimated 307,000 children under 6 who are potentially in need of child care, according to data from Child Care Aware of Minnesota and 9,000 providers. That was before the pandemic, but that picture looks a lot different now.

Some are charging families half of their regular rates during the stay-at-home order, while others are charging hold fees and some are charging nothing.

Paul Hannan said taking the kids to a quieter than usual day care has also been a way to support a struggling industry right now.

“Us continuing to work allows them to continue to work,” he said.

Some employers are flexible and have adapted to new staggered schedules that allow parents to care for their children and get their work done outside of business hours.

What about child care sharing?

But some jobs are more rigid, and the COVID-19 situation isn’t helping. Overwhelmed parents wonder if it’s OK to watch one another’s kids to help lighten everyone’s load, but they don’t know if bringing children together would be contributing to the spread of the disease while everyone is urged to shelter in place.

Rachel Smith, who works in marketing, has a more flexible schedule than her sister. Smith’s kids are also older than their preschool-age cousins. Smith wants to care for her niece and nephew to help her sister, who’s parenting solo during the day when her husband, who is an essential worker, leaves the house.

But Smith doesn’t know the level of risk that could come from combining the two family units.

“We fall into that place of, well, we’re not supposed to be seeing family, and we’re supposed to be isolating in our homes, and we want to follow through on that,” she said, adding that she offered to take the kids three days a week so her sister can work. “We’re really wrestling with that. I’m worried people in our neighborhood see that, will they think we’re not trying to abide by the stay-at-home rule?”

Experts say that as long as families are trusting of one another’s outside interactions and that they are social distancing everywhere else, they can help with child care to alleviate a stressful environment.

For Paul and Katie Hannan, they’re still following their same routine, except now there are no trips to the grocery co-op after school, no playgrounds and no visits to the grandparents. The kids go to day care in the morning and go home in the afternoon. Sometimes they’ll have a family picnic in the backyard.

“There is a little bit of guilt wrapped around it because we could technically keep our kids home,” Katie Hannan said. “Is it our responsibility to not have them in day care? I definitely struggle with that.”