Cecilia Lee, Illustrations Editor

Amid heightened social distancing restrictions and a changing landscape of childcare, the pandemic left many working parents wondering where their children could be cared for — an issue that Yale researchers examined in a recent study correlating masking with reduced closures of national childcare programs.

This study is the most recent among a research group’s series of projects that analyze the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic on childcare. The group investigated whether existing COVID-19 protocols — or a lack thereof — ensured the safety of children enrolled in care programs and the adults working at them. 

“We were trying to figure out how best to stabilize this childcare workforce,” said Walter Gilliam, professor of child psychiatry and psychology and senior author of the paper. “Thirty-five percent of all childcare providers were out of a job within just the first couple of months of the pandemic … [and] we literally closed down virtually every single school district in America at the beginning.”

The researchers spearheaded two separate rounds of surveys and questionnaires that targeted both home-based and center-based childcare programs. May 2020 saw the first round, when the group asked more than 57,000 childcare providers about program exposure to COVID-19, as well as how they were reducing exposure levels. They also found that there was little difference in infection rates for workers at open versus closed programs. 

During the second round, the group collected updated reports from a subset of the original population they initially surveyed. These reports provided new statistics regarding vaccination uptake in child care providers compared to the general adult population in the U.S., revealing that the uptake was higher across child care providers. 

“We were interested in trying to understand … the … strategies … that helped [childcare centers] stay open during the pandemic … of all the things they were doing,” Associate Professor of Pediatrics Thomas Murray said. Murray is the co-first author of this paper. 

In addition to masking, these strategies included social distancing practices, cohorting and staggered arrival and departure names, said Amyn Malik, a postdoctoral associate at the Yale School of Medicine and a co-first author of this paper. 

Ultimately, the researchers’ data suggested that childcare centers with masking policies were around 13 percent less likely to close than their counterparts after one year, and 14 percent less likely to close overall. According to Murray, their results aligned with current masking recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Malik hopes that this study will push more childcare centers throughout the country to “adopt these … masking practices so that we can limit the transmission and the endanger[ment] of children and other staff members – especially amid increasing COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates among children, he said. 

The researchers are looking beyond the relationship between protocol implementation and levels of COVID-19 transmission in childcare programs. Other factors to consider are racial inequity and mental health, according to Gilliam. The pandemic introduced a myriad of economic stressors for the childcare workforce in particular: unlike salaried educators, many workers are paid hourly and do not have paycheck protection. This means that they would be out of employment if the childcare program they worked at closed down. 

Moreover, Gilliam emphasized that many of such programs are not necessarily large corporations but rather smaller organizations that were “barely getting by month-by-month before the pandemic.” And for home-based childcare providers, which are overwhelmingly made up of women of color, many are finding themselves in a situation where they are an “exploited labor group,” experiencing severe undercompensation for the work they perform taking care of others, Gilliam said. He said that these workers are especially suffering due to the stalled Build Back Better Act, which has promised to commit $400 billion in early childcare and educational programs in the U.S.

According to the researchers, approximately 42 percent of the 82,000 childcare providers nationwide surveyed screened positive for depression at clinical levels at the start of the pandemic, and a year later, that percentage has not changed.

“If there’s anything that I’ve learned in the course of my work as a child psychologist and as somebody who works in early childhood policies, it’s that the measure of any society in terms of how much it values its children is how well it takes care of those who care for those children,” Gilliam explained. “And by that measure, we’re not doing very well by our kids.”

The team’s research publication may be accessed here

Correction, Feb. 2: Amyn Malik’s first name was previously spelled incorrectly. The article has since been corrected. The News regrets this error.

SOPHIE WANG
Sophie Wang covers COVID-19 and Yale New-Haven Health. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a freshman in Berkeley College prospectively majoring in statistics & data science and English.
BRIAN ZHANG
Brian Zhang covers COVID-19 and Yale New Haven Health, as well as housing and homelessness. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, he is a student in Davenport majoring in English and creative writing.