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COVID-19 Cases Spike in Texas Daycare, Will Classrooms Be Next?

NBCUniversal, Inc.

COVID-19 cases have more than tripled at Texas daycare centers during the past four weeks, a troubling trend that officials worry will spill over into schools as classrooms begin to re-open to students and teachers.

Numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services obtained by NBC 5 Investigates showed that cases connected to daycares have exploded, from 817 cases at the end of June to 2,810 cases today, the final day of July.

About two-thirds of those cases are staff members and the rest are children, NBC 5 Investigates has learned.

At least 1,678 different child care centers have seen at least one case.

More daycare facilities have been re-opening gradually in recent months after many shut down earlier this year.

About 12,000 child-care operations are now open in Texas, down from 17,000 that were operating in February before the state got hit hard by the pandemic.

Now with schools set to re-open this fall, anxious parents are left to decide which is riskier –a school classroom, or a daycare, where the unseen virus may lurk; or at home, away from the interaction with other children and teachers that are so important in growing up.

“I think it's really just… 'what can you live with? What risk are you willing to take,'" said Holiday Bean, mother of a 3-year-old boy currently going to a daycare in Fort Worth.

While she and her husband are pleased with the safety measures in place at the daycare, they still wonder and watch as the coronavirus rolls through North Texas.

“Everything is fluid. I may yank the chain tomorrow. I may stop this tomorrow. I don’t know,” Bean said.

In recent interviews with NBC 5 Investigates, senior health officials in Dallas and Tarrant counties say the jump in daycare cases is a good indicator of what to expect when the school year starts.

“In-person classes just do not seem safe at this point,” said Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County’s Health and Human Services.

Huang said he had come to that conclusion because of what he sees happening in daycares.

“The adults, the staff. I think we’ve had three of them hospitalized and two of them even in the ICU,” he said.

Researchers fear the outbreaks would be bigger in schools, with a much larger number of kids.

“I would expect that if schools open, we would have significant outbreaks within the schools and you would see much more of our pediatric population being infected,” said Dr. Pedro Piedra, a researcher of viruses in children at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Tarrant County’s chief epidemiologist, Russ Jones, said he feels kids, to stay safe, should continue to take classes online if possible.

“That’s the safest. It’s probably not the most effective for education purposes, and …you gotta balance it,” Jones said, adding: “Some parents are dependent on their child going to school so they can go to work.”

In a video conference call with NBC 5 Investigates, daycare operators from across the state said they’re finding safety measures that work for them and could also work for schools.

“We sweep, clean, sanitize and disinfect every night,” said Joan Altobelli, vice president of the YMCA of Austin, which hosted a summer care program for 500 children – none of whom reported coming down with COVID-19.

“We have foggers we set off in each of the rooms, and then we start over again in the morning with another cleaning, in case droplets have settled during the night,” Altobelli said.

Other measures, she said, include strict protocols in wearing masks, keeping classes small, and limiting teachers to one classroom a day.

“Sometimes the teachers will want to eat lunch together and we just can’t do it,” Altobelli said.

She and other daycare operators said they feel kids should be safe, and happier if re-opened schools take similar measures.

“These children need a resource, whether that’s a child-care facility, whether that’s a school,” said Stephanie Retherford, president-elect of the Texas Licensed Child Care Association.

Stace Jones, chief operations officer with Christian Preschool Centers in Lubbock, agreed.

“They are the future. We need to be teaching them. So they need to be in schools and be learning,” Jones said.

It’s a consideration Bean makes every day as she drops her son off at daycare.

It’s also a thought she has, as a child psychologist, every time parents tell her they feel guilty, no matter what decisions they make on where to place their children during the pandemic.

“There is no right or wrong in this. This is just, how do we keep everyone safe and what can we do to mitigate circumstances,” Bean said.

In interviews with NBC 5 Investigates, doctors agreed that children with chronic health conditions should, for the time being, do their lessons from home.

But if both parents must work outside the home, and parents have to choose between their job and educating a child at home, the family may be better off, in the long run, if their child attends in-person class, experts said.

However, that should not happen, they said, until important questions are answered – How will classes be set up? Will students pass each other in the hallway? What does lunchtime look like? – to keep children safe from COVID-19.

*Map locations are approximate, central locations for the city and are not meant to indicate where actual infected people live.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated that two-thirds of COVID-19 cases connected to daycares were children and one-third were staff members. It should have said two-thirds of cases were staff members and one-third children. From March through the final day of July the Texas Health and Human Serviced Commission says it was notified of a total of 2,810 reported positive cases of COVID-19 connected to daycare centers (1,896 staff, 914 children).

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