ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The U.S. can't fully get back to work until child care and schools open. But how can they do it safely? NPR's Anya Kamenetz has this look at the centers around the country that continue to care for tens of thousands of children of frontline workers, from doctors to grocery store clerks, and what we can learn from their example.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: OK, I'm yellow.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: These are children playing at the Valley of the Sun YMCA in Phoenix on a recent morning. They keep to pods of no more than nine to limit their close contacts.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I got - I got two...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: I got purple.
KAMENETZ: Throughout the lockdowns, YMCAs across the country cared for up to 40,000 children of essential workers. And in the weeks that New York was the pandemic's epicenter, that city's Department of Education cared for more than 10,000 children. And since March, these centers have followed rules, like keeping children in small, separate pods, temperature checks at the door, frequent handwashing and social distancing.
At the Valley of the Sun YMCAs in Arizona, says Chief Operating Officer Libby Corral, they tried to make all this as fun as possible for the kids.
LIBBY CORRAL: We taught a lot of airplane arms - right? - and so when kids make airplanes with their arms, they're able to see what that social distancing looks like.
KAMENETZ: So did all of these precautions pay off? Well, the YMCA of the USA emphasizes it doesn't have comprehensive data, but nor does it have any reports of multiple cases at any one of their 1,100 locations. Similarly with New York City's Department of Education, they told NPR there were no clusters of coronavirus cases associated with its 170 sites. This was true, even though it was the height of the pandemic, and even though family members of these kids were going out to work in public each day, risking exposure at hospitals and grocery stores.
Tatiana Laimit is one of those family members. She's a nurse and a single mom in Phoenix. She has been sending her 6-year-old daughter to Valley of the Sun YMCA since schools closed in March.
TATIANA LAIMIT: When I'm at work, especially providing care for others, it's absolutely chaotic right now. Arizona's on the rise with their COVID cases. Not having to worry about my daughter and her safety and is she having fun and having all of her needs met, it's a savior for me. It's a weight off of my shoulders.
KAMENETZ: How relaxed should parents like Laimit be? Dr. Joshua Sharfstein at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health says we can learn from the YMCA and New York City examples.
JOSHUA SHARFSTEIN: It is certainly understandable from this and from evidence from other countries where they started to reopen school that there are ways to substantially reduce the risk when kids get together.
KAMENETZ: But he says it's not scientific research, and we shouldn't overgeneralize.
SHARFSTEIN: These experiences illustrate that it's possible to bring kids together without a, you know, guarantee of an outbreak, but they don't guarantee that you couldn't have a problem like that.
KAMENETZ: Dr. Sharfstein says there is converging evidence that children don't play as big a role in spreading the coronavirus as they tend to do with other infectious diseases, like the flu. Children seem to be less likely to catch the coronavirus in the first place. And when they do test positive, they have fewer symptoms, like coughing or sneezing, which makes them less likely to pass the disease along. But, he says, we don't know why. In fact, we're missing the answers to a lot of questions.
SHARFSTEIN: I think there is a big weakness right now that we don't have a clear national research strategy on this.
KAMENETZ: As tens of thousands of school districts make plans to reopen in the fall, and as child care, summer camps and daycares open up now, parents are being left to balance the benefits for their children and their sanity against a sea of unknowns.
Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.
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