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State issues strict new child care facility requirements to cope with COVID-19 threat

State officials released strict new guidelines Tuesday for Hawaii child care facilities that are operating now or plan to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic, and also announced $11.9 million grant funding to try to stabilize and support child care operators.

The new guidelines require a maximum 9-to-1 child-to-caregiver ratio and require that children be separated into the same groups from day to day, with the same caregivers or teachers with each group each day. Pickup and drop-off times are to be staggered along with outdoor play times and meal times.

The guidelines also recommend that “when determining appropriate space capacity for each child care group, ensure that all children in a group have at least 36 square feet each of personal space to allow for physical distancing.”

The state guidelines are in keeping with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, but state Department of Human Services Director Pankaj Bhanot acknowledged it is difficult to visualize exactly how caregivers at the facilities will maintain social distancing when small children are involved.

“Depending on their age, 2-year-old, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, they love to hug, kiss and run around, snatch each other’s toys, fight, play — it’s going to be difficult,” said Bhanot. The required small class sizes will help to keep small children apart from each other as much as possible, he said.

The new guidelines describe cleaning and sanitation measures, physical distancing, room dividers and daily temperature checks for students and staff. Face masks or face shields are to be worn by staff “as much as possible.”

“In reopening the economy, we always recognized that good, reliable child care would be needed for employees to safely return to work,” said Alan Oshima, navigator of the state’s economic recovery and resiliency effort. “I am confident that with these guidelines, we can all feel confident in leaving our keiki with qualified child care in the state of Hawaii.”

Child care operators and providers who run After- School Plus, or A+, programs for the state Department of Education have until July 31 to apply for the grants, which are funded with money from the federal CARES Act. The funding is to help cover the cost of cleaning, sanitation and other activities necessary to run the programs during the pandemic, Bhanot said.

Deborah Zysman, executive director of Hawaii Children’s Action Network, said funding for child care providers is a lifeline but not a long-term fix.

“Our phones have been ringing off the hook because the new ratios for health and safety — which we think are wise for health and safety — the economics are just really terrible for child care providers,” she said. “They are now going to be serving far fewer kids at maximum, and how will they possibly operate? Because their costs don’t go down.”

The normal ratio for many providers was 1 adult to serve 16 children, and A+ providers often serve 20 kids for 1 adult, she said. Now they can manage a maximum of 9 children for 1 adult.

“So, either you’re going to have to dramatically raise tuition prices for families that can’t afford it right now, or we’re going to have to find some other ways to provide additional money” to support child care operations, Zysman said.

Child care operators are also wondering how they are supposed to decide which of their clients they will serve, and which families and children they will have to turn away as they reduce class sizes, she said.

There are about 600 child care providers operating in Hawaii and providing care to children from birth to age 5, and about 36,000 regulated child care slots for those age groups statewide.

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