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Child care programs not associated with COVID-19 spread, large study finds

A recent study surveyed 57,000 child care providers and found that there was no "heightened risk" of coronavirus transmission if safety practices were followed.
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

A large-scale study conducted by Yale University found that child care is not associated with the spread of the coronavirus.

The study, published in Pediatrics, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that child care programs that stayed open throughout the pandemic did not contribute to the spread of the virus to providers if those child care programs were in areas with low COVID-19 spread and took multiple safety measures, including disinfecting surfaces, hand washing, screening for symptoms, social distancing, masking and limiting group sizes.

The study surveyed 57,000 child care providers across all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, and compared self-reported COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations among workers whose programs stayed open against those whose programs had closed. No difference in COVID-19 outcomes was observed between the two groups, leading researchers to conclude that child care providers did not face any "heightened risk" from their workplaces so long as core health and safety practices were followed.

Throughout the pandemic, a major concern has been whether child care centers could lead to community spread of the virus. A small study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that focused on just three child care facilities in Utah, appeared to show that children could catch the virus and spread it to adults, but the study said that the children in the surveyed day cares did not wear masks, though staff members did. The study also primarily focused on spread outside of the child care facility, looking at whether children were spreading to family members instead of child care employees.

"Our study doesn’t fully answer the question of whether to reopen child care or not — we don’t have data on children’s risk, and local levels of community spread matter a lot," said Walter Gilliam, Ph.D., the study's lead author and the director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. "But our study does offer solid evidence that, under certain conditions, it’s possible to open child care programs without putting staff in harm’s way."

While child care workers may not have been at risk in their workplace, they were not unaffected by the pandemic. The study found that Black, Latino and Native American child care providers were more likely to test positive for COVID-19 and be hospitalized for it. In counties with higher rates of coronavirus deaths, child care workers were more likely to contract the virus.

"While plenty of U.S. child care workers contracted COVID-19 in May and June, it wasn’t driven by whether they were working with children or not," Gilliam said in a press release.

Lynette Fraga, Ph.D., the CEO of Child Care Aware of America (a resource to help families access quality, affordable child care), which participated in the study and offered recommendations based on its results, said that the study shows that it can be possible to reopen child care safely as long as appropriate measures are taken.

"This study shows that to be open safely, child care providers will need to practice mitigation and prevention strategies which cost money," Fraga said. "And, at times, it may not be safe for child care to be open if community transmission rates are high. To stabilize an industry facing additional costs and ongoing, public health-related closures, significant funding is needed."

Gillam also noted that the study doesn't necessarily mean schools can reopen for regular classes.

"Adults who work with infants, toddlers and preschoolers typically have a small group of children who stay together all day," said Gilliam in the press release. "Middle schools and high schools may have hundreds of people in a building — and typically, moving from class to class. Those factors alone make K-12 schools very different from child care programs."