Working parents seek relief from COVID-19 quarantine rules for youngest children in daycare
Every workday, Audrey Leites of Penfield drops off her 4-year-old daughter, Esme, and 16-month-old son, Sloan, at day care so she can focus on her job as a paralegal.
But New York state guidelines for COVID-19 have disrupted that routine more than once.
The current guidance from the state Office of Children and Family Services says that children under the age of 2 who are exposed to COVID can’t go to day care for 10 days — even if they test negative.
Leites said Sloan recently missed 20 days of day care because of back-to-back exposures to the virus. He never tested positive.
"Over this spring period, where we've just had an explosion of different cases, it's just really been happening to everyone," she said.
Leites is at her wits’ end.
"For us, it's just been extremely stressful and traumatic," she said.
The requirements are less stringent for kids older than 2. Their quarantines last up to five days or until they test negative. The difference: They are expected to wear a mask, where a younger toddler isn't.
The day care center that Sloan attends expects full payment, even for missed days.
"So you're left without care, your job in jeopardy and paying full price," said an exasperated Leites.
Not all centers have such a policy, according to Jeff Pier, CEO of the nonprofit Child Care Council, which offers information, training, and resources to parents and providers in Monroe, Wayne, and Livingston counties.
Pier said families don't have much leverage if their day care providers expect them to pay even when their kids are absent. That's because there aren't enough providers to meet the demand. Over 2,000 day care slots have disappeared since the start of the pandemic in 2020. Pier said some providers are reopening and new providers are starting, but most places have waiting lists.
"Not that the centers don't care about their families; they do," he added. "They wouldn't be in this work if they didn't. But they still do have expenses to pay."
Leites said she isn't eligible for paid family leave when she needs to keep her son at home, because she's able to do her job remotely. But juggling work and caring for a 16-month-old isn't easy, so she has to take time off.
"I've been just using my sick time and I'm putting off things like going to the dentist because I've just been out from work so much already," she explained. "I know a lot of families have it even worse than I do."
Pier said she's right; he gets calls from families whose children are enrolled in day care programs that shut down an entire classroom for 10 days because a child tested positive or was exposed to COVID-19.
He speculated that is what some providers see as the most cautious way to interpret state regulations. They also want to protect staff members -- who are in short supply -- from getting exposed themselves. Pier explained that providers who are eligible for state or federal funding still get that funding even if they shut down. But a for-profit center has no revenue if it doesn't charge families.
There's another consideration for families that receive child care subsidies. Children who are absent from day care for more than a certain number of days in a given year can lose their slot. Earlier this year, Monroe County boosted the limit to 80 absences. The state minimum is 24.
According to Pier, home-based day care providers are less likely to shut down over a COVID-19 exposure. He said parents can call his office at 585-654-4720 if they want a referral.
Leites said she and more than 50 other parents whose kids go to the same day care program are looking for solutions to the uncertainty and schedule disruptions caused by the quarantine requirements.
She said she isn't opposed to common-sense public health restrictions during a pandemic, but she doesn't understand why a healthy child has to stay home, especially if their older sibling can return five days earlier.
Leites wonders if a "test-to-stay" policy could be adopted, allowing kids to remain in day care if they test negative for COVID-19.
The local officials they've talked to say they're sympathetic to their concerns, but any changes are up to Gov. Kathy Hochul and state health authorities.
A spokesperson for the state Office of Child and Family Services said the agency is actively monitoring the impact of the policies to determine if any updates are warranted.
Leites hopes the answer is yes.
She said her employer has been understanding, but there's no way to know when her son could be exposed to the virus again and she'll have to request more time off.
"After a couple more episodes of this, I would be like, 'Can I really do my job right now?'” she wondered. "It just gets to be impossible and I know we have a problem in this country with women, mothers leaving the workforce, and this is one of the reasons why."
Leites also said if New York doesn't offer any flexibility with its quarantine policy, she’d like the state government to provide financial support to parents who must stay home to care for their child to allow them to recoup lost wages and day care costs.
Hochul said she has directed the Department of Health and the Office of Children and Family Services to develop a new "common sense" plan that works better for families.
She did not give a timeline for that change.