AUBURN — Nicole Bonnell’s two sons have been out of daycare more days than not in the last six weeks due to a series of reoccurring coughs.

In the last month, her 5-year-old son has tested negative for COVID-19 five times, most recently at school Friday. Yet, Bonnell’s daycare said he won’t be able to return to daycare until he stops coughing. This is the third or fourth time he’s been out since the start of November.

“I work, my kids’ dad works,” she said. “If our kids can’t go to daycare, we need to find alternate situations or find someone else to cover our shifts or find someone to watch our children. But we’re having a hard time finding people to watch the kids because of COVID.”

Many parents are increasingly weary of the ongoing disruptions to school and child care services caused by COVID-19. When parents are told their child must quarantine, usually for a period of 10 days, they scramble to adjust their work schedules or find others who are willing to care for their potentially sick child. The challenge is even greater for those who have multiple kids.

Bonnell said she understands the daycare’s concerns and appreciates their efforts to keep everyone safe. “But if COVID-19 wasn’t a thing, this wouldn’t be an issue,” she said. “Before COVID was a thing, kids would go to daycare with a cough all the time.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control recommends that early childhood education programs do not allow children with symptoms of COVID-19 to attend, even if they’ve tested negative. Unlike schools which generally provide quarantine exemptions for people who are fully vaccinated or participate in pooled COVID-19 testing programs, childcare facilities largely serve a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated children and do not have access to surveillance testing, sometimes leading to stricter COVID-19 prevention policies.

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Even when Bonnell’s 5-year-old wasn’t going to daycare, he was still allowed to attend pre-kindergarten at McMahon Elementary until recently when his pool tested positive. He’ll return to school again Friday if Bonnell can find transportation.

“The whole thing is just stressful,” she said. “I feel like the rules change every other day, and no one knows what’s OK and what’s not OK.”

Parents are worry their child will get sick with COVID-19 and fear they’ll lose their jobs if they miss too much work. Even when children are told to quarantine, families are often required to pay the daycares for a service they’re unable to use.

Parents, like so many others who live and work with children, say they are feeling burnt out.

PARENTS LEAVE JOBS

Due to capacity limits and staffing shortages in child care centers, some parents — mostly mothers — have quit their jobs or reduced their hours to care for their children.

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This was the case with Clara Bolduc, who left her job as a registered nurse in June 2020 to care for her four children, ranging from 5- to 15-years old. Previously, the kids’ grandparents had helped the family with homeschooling and childcare, but Bolduc and her husband, who works as a registered nurse, felt it was too great of a risk for them to come in contact with the kids.

“The other major factor in our decision was my 88-year-old father, who lives next door to us and requires help with errands, appointments and other day to day tasks,” she said. “While I was working in patient care at Central Maine Medical Center, my exposure risk for COVID was so high, I did not feel it was safe for me to visit and care for my father.”

Bolduc, who lives in Auburn, said her children haven’t had to deal with the challenges of remote learning and many of the emotional ups and downs of COVID-19 protocols and closings. But it was a difficult decision for her to leave a job she loved when the need was so great.

“As relieved as I was to be sheltering my family as best I could from the health risks of the pandemic, there was part of me that struggled with the decision to stay home when there was so much work to be done, with the need for nurses was so high,” she said.

Soon, her 5-year-old will get the second dose of the vaccine and her family will be fully vaccinated. Bolduc said she has already started looking for a job.

“Now fully vaccinated and (with) all of our of our family (and) extended family fully vaccinated, it’s seems reasonable for me to take on a little more risk again,” she said.”

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SPREAD TOO THIN

While approval for children age 5 and older to get the vaccine has helped some parents, other families, particularly those with kids too young to be vaccinated, have found little relief. Many parents say they’ve struggled to juggle differing COVID-19 policies and numerous quarantines this fall alone.

Andrew Mountcastle of Brunswick was notified Monday that his 4-year-old and 7-year-old sons would need to quarantine for 10 days because a staff member at their aftercare provider tested positive. It’s the fifth time since September he and his wife have quarantined one or both of their kids.

He described the fall as a “never ending rollercoaster” of quarantines. Mountcastle and his wife have been able to take turns watching their kids, but it’s taken a stark toll on their work and mental health.

“I feel just exhausted, obviously exhausted from the rollercoaster of close contacts (and) quarantines, but also just exhausted of dropping so many balls, which I am, all the time,” he said. “I’m tired of explaining why I’m dropping balls, tired about feeling guilty . . . tired of apologizing . . . Just, tired of it all.”

Andrew Mountcastle with his two sons. Since September, Mountcastle and his wife have needed to quarantine one or both of their sons five times. Submitted photo

His two sons collectively attend an elementary school, daycare, and aftercare program, and the differing policies for each program have been difficult to manage. For example, Mountcastle explained that his sons can return to the aftercare program after receiving a negative test. However, the Brunswick school district requires students who come in contact with COVID-19 outside of school to quarantine the full 10 days.

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“It’s frustrating and just really disheartening,” he said. “Every time you get a call or notification that your child is a close contact, your heart sinks because you have to make these impossible choices about balancing risk while also attending to your job responsibilities.”

One Farmington woman who asked not to be named for fear of losing her daycare service said she used all of her sick time in October for her infant daughter. As a result, she hasn’t been able to schedule medical appointments for herself and, with no time left, she is terrified of losing her job the next time her daughter needs to quarantine.

“If I have to leave work, I’m getting fired,” she said. “I have been told by human resources that it is completely unacceptable to take unpaid time off and I will be fired — of course they didn’t use those words. What happens if I don’t have sick time and I need to go get my daughter?”

Even so, she said her employer has been working with her as much as they can.

When she found out her daycare service would be giving staff a break for the holidays, she panicked.

“I really, really like them, and I understand the sentiment behind what they’re doing, I really do,” she said. “But for her to send out an email saying ‘it’s been such a rough year, I want to give my staff a break,’ but not even thinking about how that would make the parents that pay for a service feel . . . (it) really hit me.”

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She feels lucky that her employer agreed to let her use vacation time to cover the break. But she worries she won’t be able to manage another unexpected loss of child care.

“WE’RE FRUSTRATED, TOO”

Parents aren’t the only ones who are struggling this fall. Child care providers say changing policies, rising COVID-19 cases, and staffing shortages have made their job especially challenging.

Jamie Westling runs an in-home daycare for a dozen children in Lewiston with her wife. Twice, her daycare has closed due to COVID-19. During these times, she and her wife lost their income.

“I wish that parents and community members would understand that providers are just as frustrated with the ever changing guidelines and inconsistent information between state licensing, 211 and (the) Maine CDC,” she said.

Executive Director of Promise Early Education Betsy Norcross Plourde said her program has been impacted by COVID-19, but less so than others child care services. As a Head Start program, Promise Early Education receives federal funding and has special services to support young children in low-income families.

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However, classrooms have occasionally closed in the last several months due to COVID-19, as recently as last week. Children will continue to connect with their teachers remotely, she said.

Staffing has been their biggest challenge. The pre-school program has openings for teachers, teacher assistants, education technicians and other support staff. They’re offering a $1,000 sign on bonus for new employees in an effort to meet their needs. Enrollment, too, has been down.

Norcross Plourde said many families have been hesitant to enroll their children in pre-school programs due to health concerns. She encouraged families to learn more about the COVID-19 prevention policies of pre-school programs, emphasizing the importance of teaching and socializing children at a young age.

Gregory Spencer of Augusta said he’s experienced this first-hand. Due to the pandemic, he and his fiancé were unable to enroll their infant daughter in daycare or socialize her with other children. When they finally found their 2-year-old daughter a program earlier this year, she attended for just one day before being identified as a close contact.

Just days after she returned from quarantine, the daycare “kicked her out” because she had acted aggressively toward another child. Unable to find another child care program, Spencer’s fiancé quit her job to watch their child full-time.

After working with childcare services in Augusta, Spencer said his daughter has learned how to communicate better with other children. Even so, they still can’t find a daycare with openings.


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