Hey everyone, we’re doing something a little different today. I have a guest on, Kim Hulcher, who is very involved with childcare in Virginia. She’s done everything from providing childcare, to running centers, to actually advocating for them at the General Assembly. We’ve worked together on the School Readiness Committee, and I’m going to introduce her in a few minutes.
I’m going to review a few COVID related things. There are a few K-12 updates. I’ve spoken to the Commissioner of Schools, Dr. James Lane, and we’re going to talk to him later in this process. He has clarified that for public schools, only each public school district needs to submit a plan. This is much better than individual schools having to submit a plan, only private schools have to submit a plan. For school districts, when you’re looking at what going back to school will look like, you’re going to be able to talk to your school board, which is the way it should be, and that is the way the Virginia Constitution is set up.
Another important thing is about virtual education. Dr. Lane has been able to expand virtual education in Virginia to include anyone who wants to have a virtual education next year. This isn’t talking to your teacher on Zoom call, this is real synchronous, where all the students are interacting, and asynchronous, where projects are done in small groups. This is set up through your school board. Dr. Lane has assured me that anyone in Virginia who wants a virtual education will be able to get it, but you have to sign up for Virtual Virginia through your school board.
We already have the high school curriculum laid out and ready to go. He is in the process of building the K-8 curriculum, and once that is available it will be opened up with the expectation that that will be done before the school year, but may be done a few weeks into the school year. If you’re still concerned, you can still get a really strong program. This has been done in the past, but was only available to 6,000 students. Now, it will be available to anyone in Virginia who wants it, and it won’t be like your child’s experience at the end of this past school year.
Let’s talk about outbreaks across the country. We’ve heard about Florida, Arizona, South Carolina, and Texas. It appears that in those states there have been an increased number of tests, but their percent positive is still believed to be under that 10% benchmark. Arizona seems to be a bit of a problem, but Arizona itself admits that it’s not designating where those deaths and hospitalizations are, and they suspect they are in their nursing homes, which we have seen in Virginia. In the past we’ve seen statistics showing that 57% of all deaths in Virginia are in nursing homes, and that is true across the board, and across the country, because that is our most fragile population.
Finally, for phase III, which was announced yesterday. We will enter phase III one week from today. Restaurants are going to fully open, you’ll be able to congregate in groups of 250, there will be large outdoor venues open of about 1,000. I assume this means our amusement parks will open up, I’ve been corresponding with them about that. We’re going to get those details of phase III up on Facebook so you can look at them.
We have a lot of health data about kids aged birth to 19. They have almost no disease process when they get COVID-19, and we have to know what that means for when they go back to school. How we protect vulnerable populations, those 65 and older, and how we’re going to deal with kids getting COVID. Part of the answer is that kids are going to get COVID, there’s going to be an incidence, and it’s going to increase from what it’s been, but the key is to not get kids sick where they have to go to the hospital, or die. If they do have to go to the hospital, we want to make sure there is hospital capacity. Based on everything we know, if they do have to go to the hospital, kids in K-12 should be okay with that. How do we work on this hypothesis based on this health data? We can look at what’s already happening in the state. There are already over 1,000 childcare centers that are open, that have been processing kids this entire time, and Kim has her finger on that pulse. Kim and I are close, our children went through school together. She is my to-go resource for all things that are early childhood education related.
Welcome, Kim Hulcher.
Kim: Thanks so much, Siobhan. As you mentioned, I am the Executive Director of the Virginia Childcare Association. We have a network of about 125 childcare centers across the state. We have had many centers that have closed during this pandemic, but many that have stayed open. For those that stayed open, it’s been a tough go. However, they were willing to do that on behalf of essential working families. They felt that was very important, and many of our teachers have been on the front lines, and we’ve learned a lot.
At this point, we’re in a much better position, but many people don’t realize that childcare has a very high bar for health. We’re a very highly regulated industry. We were able to manage better than most because of our preparation. To be honest, much of this extended from 9/11. In any case, the private sector has also responded and stepped up in many ways. Although we are highly regulated, there were many things taking place that weren’t required, but made a difference. Some of those things include greeting families at the door, therefore mitigating more traffic entering the building. That was a tough situation because we are so close to the families, but we all recognize the importance of that for safety reasons. That is also probably going to be a new practice during cold and flu season. This may be a new normal to help everyone during that time period. We are also taking temperatures at the door of the teachers, children and of any visitors who come in. This is done as a measure to make sure that if someone has a fever, they don’t come into the building. Hand washing, disinfecting and deep cleaning are all practiced and have been stepped up. There are also smaller group sizes. Social distancing has been kind of tough but we’ve made it through. Recognizing that that is what is needed right now, and hopefully in phase III we’ll be able to see an increase in those things. Social distancing has probably been the hardest for both teachers and students. We’ve been candid about the fact that social distancing is difficult and unrealistic in our field to expect children to distance 6 feet apart while playing. They don’t play in isolation or alone. We’re doing the best as we can and disinfect as much as we can.
Senator Dunnavant: The practical reality is that these kids are playing together, and we’re doing our best to keep them apart. Last week, I spoke to another group, and they haven’t had any outbreaks at any of their childcare centers. Since then, there has been one that we’ve followed up on in Roanoke, and I spoke with the Department of Health and they said the center was able to stay open the entire time because the center had great practices, they were incredibly cooperative, that no one was hospitalized, and the kids had no serious medical issues associated with that. The expectation going forward has to be realistic. The expectation is not that there will be no outbreaks, or that there won’t be any new positive tests. The expectation is that for the populations that will be exposed and get it are the ones that are the least likely to be sick, and we take care of them well enough if they are sick. But, we can’t have the expectation that no one will get this. This will be a pervasive virus that will be in society, one that we will have to deal with. If you have special needs, stay home. We can now identify who those populations are, especially kids with health issues. What do you think about schools being able to adapt to your best practices and open in August?
Kim: I think if we are the example of whether or not it can be done, I think we’ve proven that. I know the state is still exploring a lot of options, and what they feel is the best option based on the locality and the outbreak, but I think that if we follow the science and data, the conclusion is that it will be safe. I’m not a medical professional, I can only tell you from what I experience in the field. We are really comfortable where we are, and now we’re at a place of stability. We can use the tools we have to inform our future decision making and best practices. We have other illnesses we deal with. While COVID is a special virus, we’re very practiced in dealing with illness. We want to make sure things are as safe and healthy as possible, and we just want to make sure we can do that, and that should be applied to any illness.
Senator Dunnavant: I can’t agree more. Here’s something I learned in medicine. When you’re figuring out a problem and you’re looking at all your options, virtually every single time you encounter a problem and a decision about that problem, every single piece of evidence supports and resonates with that conclusion. When I talk about what science says in regard to the risk to kids, and you talk about what the data is from your world, it resonates. It just makes intuitive sense, and that is why so many parents are frustrated with the state. The state is trying to walk a fine line between what they are allowed to do constitutionally, what the CDC says, and what the guidelines say. I think they could have done a much better job communicating. They seem to be so coiled up in anxiety in not overstating or taking liability, and leadership requires taking some liability and jeopardy. Please tell me about your experience with the state, as that may help us going forward. You have some experience in other states that are doing a better job than we are, and I’d love to hear about that.
Kim: As far as communication goes, that is very important. We are constantly waiting for information. We’re almost coming up with our own protocols and inventing things for ourselves that help us to move forward, with or without the state’s guidance. I know that’s a tough call, but to circle back to the data, if we could just have robust communication of data. We’re a very data driven industry, which you may not know about the childcare industry in Virginia. Education has taught us to be more data informed and data driven. If they could just provide us with that, that could provide us some information to work quickly. The private sector has the ability to cut through a lot of red tape more quickly, which unfortunately the state has to go through, which slows down the process.
As far as other states go, I was on a call earlier with North Carolina and they acknowledged that we were one of the slowest states to take action and open up. I expressed that we’re still very limited in our group size. Kids still aren’t swimming in swimming pools. We’re not having enrichment activities come in. If we could move a little quicker, this summer could still be saved as far as working to keep children healthy, but still have a meaningful and enriching summer camp experience.
I also want to mention that I’ve had the opportunity to travel to China on a couple of occasions and observe their early education classrooms. It’s kind of funny that they’ve dealt with SARS and bird viruses, and swine flu, and they’re really practiced in this. I almost felt that they were taking things to the extreme there because they were taking temperatures when you came into the building at night. Or you’d flip a switch and the lighting system was fluorescent and would sanitize the classroom. There are some technologies out there that are coming into the U.S. that would help keep us healthy and help our children. COVID is challenging for sure, and the biggest thing is working together. We should be getting out of our silos and forcing us to have these conversations about how we can work together in the safest way possible.
Senator Dunnavant: I agree, and you’ve hit the nail on the head. I love the idea of new technology to sanitize everything. When people say that this is going to change us forever, I don’t believe we’re not going to hug, or shake hands. I’ve seen pictures of other pandemics where they wore masks, but we didn’t wear masks for the past 100 years. We are going to go back to normal, but things like that that constructively decrease the risk in schools are helpful. If we had nimble virtual education in schools, a child staying home sick would only be a childcare issue. But right now, parents send their children to school sick when there are so many things we could do to sanitize and to make it a punishment free zone if a child stays home sick. For me, my frustration with the state is that the state has taken too long in what it’s done, and when we finally got to the decision, it was too confusing. We really need leadership, and I think the private sector is really going to lead on this. The private sector is going to come up with the solutions we can replicate, like you did for schools, and what healthcare is doing. Healthcare providers made up 3% of the positive tests when we did the testing and captured where people had the risk of exposure. We do know how to get this right, we just need to keep working on it.
Kim: We just really echo what I’ve just said, and our biggest challenge now is preparing for the fall. We want the state to know that we are supportive. If children are going to be staggered in their schedules, what can we do to help with that? How do we handle transportation? Is it realistic to transport children with social distancing, and get them to and from school safely? If we can get the communication, and know what schools are going to do, we can prepare much more quickly.
Senator Dunnavant: Just to get feedback on that, we should know that by mid-July. School districts have to submit a report, and there is a lot of permissibility. School districts have almost complete control over this. As I understand it, there was a review whether or not the Department of Health could actually regulate the schools constitutionally, and the answer is no. The school districts handle that.
This is the thing that bugs me, I keep going to different resources to see what we’ve got in the press conference, but no one knows what it means. People are actually angry because things are so confusing. What’s the real word on the street? What I'm getting is that all the experts at the state expect us to be at phase III by the time this comes up, and this will never even be an issue. I wish they would say that. If the state of Virginia were my patient, I’d be telling them that this is what I think is going to happen, and this is what we can look forward to. Instead of wasting your health worrying, keep that in mind. If that changes we’ll have a conversation about that, and you need to be ready for changes. Instead, we’re getting the worst case scenario.
We’ve talked about PPE and getting workers the protection they need, like private ambulances, healthcare providers, and childcare providers getting the resources they need.
Thank you to everyone in the childcare industry!