When Lisa* discovered her daughter was exposed to COVID-19 yet again at daycare, she scrambled to find a sitter. She received the news via email on a late Friday afternoon in April and knew she only had two days to secure another childcare option before the following Monday. 

A single mother, Lisa, who requested her name be withheld because of privacy concerns, said she couldn’t afford to take another day off from work. Over the course of the pandemic, she exhausted her paid time off and other leave options to care for her family. She needed to work.   

The problem worsened when Lisa’s daughter, and shortly after her other children, tested positive for COVID, forcing the family to isolate. But even after they completed their isolation period, the west suburban mother stumbled onto another hurdle: Unlike her older children who went back to school, Lisa’s daughter could only return to The Day Nursery, a daycare center in Oak Park, when she tested negative for COVID-19. 

“They’re like, ‘Well, she can’t come back,’” Lisa told Wednesday Journal, recalling her conversation with nursery staff. “I’m like, ‘She has zero symptoms.’” Staff advised Lisa to continue testing her daughter until she was negative.

“I’m like, ‘OK, but I can’t keep taking off work,’” she said exasperated. “And a week later, she was still testing positive. It had been like 14 days.”

The challenges faced by staff and families at the Day Nursery are not unique among Oak Park daycares.

Under the guidance of the Oak Park Department of Public Health, daycare employees or children who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate for five days and can only return with a negative antigen test result. Those identified as close contacts are required to quarantine for five days, the health department also advised. Quarantine restrictions changed earlier this month, now requiring those who are close contacts to submit a negative test result. 

Restrictions for daycare centers in Oak Park look rather different from its schools, which have since lifted their masking mandate and eased other mitigations this past spring. School officials also announced that staff and students who were unvaccinated and asymptomatic no longer needed to quarantine. 

For Lisa and many other parents with young children in Oak Park daycares, the varying rules became too confusing and frustrating. Now, they were coming together and voicing their concerns to Oak Park Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder. 

‘It’s just rough’

Lisa and Paula,* another Day Nursery parent who requested anonymity, said they and more than a dozen local parents are asking the health director to loosen quarantine restrictions and offer support for working parents. The six-page letter to Chapple-McGruder included signatures from 30 families and testimonies from parents who voiced concerns over The Day Nursery’s closures. The daycare has closed classrooms because of outbreak cases, pushing staff and children into isolation and quarantine and parents to scramble for alternative childcare. In late May, The Day Nursery closed its entire facility for five days after a total of eight positive cases impacted all five of its classrooms. Part of the closure took place over Memorial Day weekend, but some parents struggled to find other childcare after the holiday was over. 

“The lack of consistent childcare centers is not merely an inconvenience to working parents with children in childcare,” they wrote. “Instead, this is an issue that furthers social inequity through economic and developmental consequences as parents struggle to keep their jobs, care for their young children, and provide a structured, intentional setting for our population’s youngest age group.”

In recent months, as cases surged due to the omicron variant, Lisa, Paula and many other parents have dealt with the news of the nursery’s closures mostly on the fly and learned to cobble solutions together. They called upon family members to babysit, begged employers to extend the company’s work-from-home option or took days off. But after more than two years of making do and with COVID measures softened, Paula, who helped write the letter, asked when daycares in Oak Park would be next for eased restrictions.   

“All these days that she’s home, we’re having to scramble to find somebody,” Paula said, running through the limited choices most parents have. “Either we sit her here in front of the TV for the whole day, but [when] you’re talking about five days, you can’t do that. We ship her out to her grandparents, which requires a two-hour commute for us to do that, or we hire somebody, which is on top of the tuition we’re already paying for the daycare.” 

Chapple-McGruder and Cari Christoff, executive director of The Day Nursery, told the Journal they empathized with area families and the challenges they continue to face during the pandemic but shared the reasoning behind closures, including the one over the Memorial Day holiday, and other restrictions. 

“I understand that people are looking at the mitigations as the problem, but it’s really not the mitigations that are the problem,” Chapple-McGruder said. “It’s the fact that we’re removing the mitigations that is [contributing to] increasing cases and increasing needs to implement the harsher mitigations.” 

The two shared there are some major differences between schools and daycare centers.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, a school outbreak is defined as multiple cases impacting at least 10% of teachers, staff and students within a core group, or individuals “who were together during the exposure period.” Three COVID cases within a “specified core group” also make up an outbreak. So, what does that mean for the Day Nursery and other centers that deal with mostly unvaccinated children and have small classroom sizes?

“When you have a classroom of 10 [and] one person tests positive, you have to close the classroom. It’s considered an outbreak,” Christoff said, noting shutting down a single classroom is meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect other staff and children.  

“The Day Nursery is responsible for 25 staff members and those staff members’ families, and the 77 potential families and the children that are there,” she said. “The decisions – what we do – impact a lot of families.” 

Christoff told the Journal that close contacts are bound to crop up in daycare classrooms, especially because of the way children and staff interact with each other. Children at the nursery eat at least four meals, take naps and play together. Masking inside the daycares is recommended by the public health department, though Chapple-McGruder noted childcare centers can tighten restrictions as they see fit. At The Day Nursery, staff and children are still required to wear masks indoors. 

Chapple-McGruder added that SHIELD, a free weekly COVID testing program, is only available to schools, not daycare centers. Frequent testing, she explained, helps detect the virus in its early stages before it spread to more people. 

“Without that kind of layer, we see more outbreaks, and daycare centers have definitely had more number of cases and larger classroom outbreaks than schools because of that layer of protection not being there,” she told the Journal. 

But that still leaves parents like Lisa and Paula in a bind. Paula said she felt nursery staff did not communicate news of closures well to families and did not understand all the guidelines placed by local health officials. Christoff, however, told the Journal that she and other staff have remained transparent with families, often sharing weekly COVID updates. The nursery is now offering free BinaxNOW COVID self-test kits, which can be administered by daycare staff. 

Just weeks ago, COVID-19 vaccines became available for children 6 months to 4 years old, another set of news Lisa had longed for. 

While Lisa said she’s excited to get her daughter vaccinated, she’s still a worrier. What if her daughter experiences symptoms because of the vaccine? Would she be able to take more time off to care for her? Lisa said she had other lingering concerns like what if parents with younger children choose not to get vaccinated or decide to wait? How will that impact the cases at The Day Nursery?

Lisa said she knows vaccinated people can still get COVID-19 and the vaccines act as a “buffer” for the virus, and the pandemic, overall, “sucks.” “There’s no real other alternatives.”   

“There’s no equity across the board,” Lisa said. “I know some families hire a nanny or can afford an au pair or something to watch [their children]. … This pandemic has really hurt lower-income families with children of any age. I mean, it’s just rough.”

*Editor’s Note: Wednesday Journal has agreed to change the names of the parents in the story to protect their identities. 

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