APPLETON – That some of the youngest Wisconsinites can now be vaccinated against COVID-19 signals a change for child care providers, with many hoping it will ensure fewer COVID-exposures leading to program closures.
“For many families this is a very exciting time because it allows them to finally let their children be vaccinated and hopefully allow them to move toward the new normal that many of us in that older population have,” said Dr. Sarah Campbell, a pediatrician with Ascension Medical Group Wisconsin who cares for patients in Appleton.
Yet, this excitement also brings uncertainty for many child care and early education providers and the parents who rely on them.
In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended children as young as 6 months be vaccinated against COVID-19, and shortly after the Wisconsin Department of Health Services followed suit. However, there has been little updated guidance specific to the newly approved vaccines as they relate to child care and early education settings.
This, coupled with the fact that child care providers operate as private businesses, results in a lack of uniformity in policies relating to COVID vaccines and whether providers can or should require them.
“Daycares will try to decide what is the policy that they think is best to protect the children, to protect their staff and to try to make sure that the learning environment is as they would like it to be,” Campbell said.
Like Campbell, ThedaCare Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Mark Cockley acknowledged each child care facility will implement its own rules. He did not offer specific recommendations, but he noted vaccines can make a difference in these settings.
“Immunization would help prevent that transmission risk and reduce the chance (of) other children or adults in these settings becoming infected,” Cockley said, noting this could be particularly important for individuals at high risk of severe complications from the disease.
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Guidance for early care and education to be expected – but there isn’t much yet
Gina Paige, communications director for Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families, said her agency, which acts as the state’s main regulating body of certified and licensed child care, is waiting to disseminate general vaccine information for children 6 months to 5 years until it hears more from Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services. Jennifer Miller, a DHS spokesperson, said she expects updated school and child care guidance to be released before the start of the 2022-23 school year.
Per CDC guidance last updated May 20 for early care and education programs, a child’s vaccination status can determine if they should quarantine after being in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.
Lacking guidance from the state, providers such as Stepping Stones Child Care in Green Bay and the YMCA of Fox Cities said they are waiting before broaching the topic with parents and guardians.
“(We were informed) that there will be some new guidance specifically for daycares regarding COVID coming soon,” Stepping Stones center director Candie Thomas said. “When or if we have to create a policy about COVID vaccines we would most likely include staff and parent input.”
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Shortly after the CDC recommended vaccines for younger children, the U.S. Health and Human Services and Education departments distributed a letter to Head Start centers across the country urging staff of the federally-funded early care and education programs, as well as schools, to engage in vaccination conversations with eligible families.
In accordance with CDC guidelines updated in late May, weeks before COVID-19 vaccines were approved for most children under 5 years old, the letter also recommended all staff who are able to be vaccinated should do so, and continued use of prevention strategies such as masking during periods of high community transmission, ensuring proper indoor ventilation and routine cleaning.
Lynn Hammen, director of Head Start at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which serves children ages 3-5, said their centers already are encouraging eligible individuals within the Head Start community to get vaccinated. She said that in Wisconsin, Head Start employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they have an exemption.
“We met the requirement for staff to be vaccinated, we’ve been encouraging families who have older children and parents to get vaccinated ever since vaccines were available (and) we’ve already been doing all of the mitigation strategies that have been recommended or suggested,” Hammen said.
UWO Head Start is discussing a partnership with the Winnebago County Health Department to host vaccine clinics at its buildings. Courtney Van Auken, a spokesperson for the Winnebago County Health Department, said her office is also communicating with providers in the area to answer questions.
Parents’ choice, or providers’?
Amy Nogar, who runs Amy & Kids Co. Family Child Care out of her Appleton home, said she has yet to hear of child care providers refusing to accept children who are not vaccinated against COVID, although she has heard of this being done in relation to other illnesses.
The choice ultimately lies with parents.
Parents with little ones in tow at a vaccine clinic hosted last week by the Multicultural Coalition, Inc. at the Neenah Public Library cited a variety of reasons for vaccinating their children, including protecting others and trusting in the science.
Many of these parents also said their early care and education decisions over the past two years have been swayed by the pandemic as they tried to balance health concerns with their children’s education.
Sara Johnson of Neenah decided to homeschool her son when he was in 4K earlier in the pandemic to minimize his exposure to COVID-19. Her son’s history of respiratory issues made Johnson even more wary of COVID.
While Johnson could teach her son from home, this was not the case for her twin 3-year-old daughters who attend specific classes to aid in their speech development. She explained she could not offer her daughters’ the education they needed by herself, so they attended in-person schooling.
Last week, the girls joined their older brother in being vaccinated.
“I was more than happy to get that protection for them,” Johnson said.
August Ramponi, a 2-year old, was also vaccinated during last week’s clinic. As his mom Amy Ramponi explained, August was just a few months old during the pandemic’s early days. Ramponi decided it was best to enroll August in a small, in-home daycare to limit his potential exposure as well as provide the one-on-one attention small businesses are known for.
But as the pandemic progressed and August grew, Ramponi said it was time for him to be in a larger setting where he could socialize with more children. She enrolled him in a local YMCA learning center.
“There was definitely some nervousness in that because there were so many more kids, but by that time there were vaccines for adults,” Ramponi said.
Jenna Dybul, who took her 3 year-old son to last week’s clinic to be vaccinated, said that, like Ramponi, she found smaller, in-home child care to be better for her child in the early days of the pandemic.
Unlike her public school teacher coworkers who would have to scramble to find child care at the last minute when their children’s group daycare center had to close classrooms due to COVID exposure, Dybul’s family child care provider saw fewere interruptions.
“It was definitely a plus,” she said.
Seeing vaccines as a way to protect children and their families, Dybul said she believes parents of children in child care should vaccinate their children.
“I think it’s a public responsibility for us as parents to keep everyone as safe as possible,” she said.
Providers balance personal with business
With few COVID-19 vaccine guidelines from regulatory agencies, Nogar is referring parents and guardians of the children in her care at Amy & Kids Co. to a policy she implemented long before March 2020: She reserves the right to exclude un-immunized children from care “during local outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illness.”
She explained that with the COVID-19 vaccine now being available for all of the children enrolled in Amy & Kids Co. – the youngest child currently in her care is almost 1 year old – this policy may now be applied to the pandemic. If COVID rates are high in the community, she will then decide if she wishes to apply the policy in that specific instance.
For Nogar, the decision on whether she will exclude a child from care weighs the needs of the child’s family – she understands parents have a limited amount of time they can take off work – against the risk to other children and her own family.
“It’s not like in a group center where you go to work, come home, take off your clothes and shower and your home can be your safe zone. With (my child care business), my family lives there too, so when somebody gets COVID, my family is just as exposed as anybody else,” Nogar said, adding that knowing the children in her care have been vaccinated would give her some peace of mind.
Nogar said some parents’ hesitation surrounding vaccinating young kids, along with it becoming a political flash point, is something she considers along with what it means to run her child care program effectively.
“I support a parent’s right to choose completely,” she said. “But, at the same time, as a business person I worry ‘If an unvaccinated child were to catch (an illness or disease) they vaccinate for, and got it into my program and other children caught it, would I be (held responsible) because I knew the child was unvaccinated?’”
Akili Butler Jr. runs a nannying business where he provides care for two families at their respective houses while their parents are at work. Like Nogar, he views COVID-19 vaccinations as a large piece of his business’ stability.
“The safest way for all of us to continue to work – for (their parents) to work so I would be able to work – was just to get vaccinated as soon as we all could,” Butler said, speaking of when the vaccines rolled out for adults. He added now that the children in his care are eligible to be vaccinated, he expects their parents to vaccinate them “sooner (rather) than later.”
Butler said his personal experiences also influenced his philosophy on vaccinations – his son, who is now in remission, battled childhood cancer throughout much of the pandemic.
“I was in a position where I had to fight to give my son these medicines that I could barely pronounce … so if I could force him to take these medicines to save his life, the least I could do is my part to help him out and not put him at (further) risk,” Butler said, referring to his decision to get vaccinated and boosted.
Making the decision: It’s between parents and their child’s doctor
When determining whether to vaccinate a child against COVID-19, Campbell said families should engage their pediatrician in the conversation.
“Anyone who has questions about the vaccine should be talking to their health care provider because that is the person who knows the patient, their history and can have that educated conversation about what is right,” Campbell said, later adding, “Vaccinations are a powerful tool to help protect children, families and our communities from severe illness, hospitalization and death.”
While those at the Multicultural Coalition Inc. clinic determined getting the vaccine was best for their little ones and families, many said they felt they needed to trust other parents – whether they were vaccinating their children or not – to make the right choice for their respective families.
“It’s the parents’ choice, but I’d prefer that they get the vaccine,” said Neenah’s Daisy Roth, whose daughter is soon entering a local YMCA 3K education program. “I know everybody has different medical conditions. If you can vaccinate your children, do it for the community.”
For those looking to vaccinate their children aged 6 months and older, or to get vaccinated themselves, a statewide list is available at www.vaccines.gov.
Some options include:
Outagamie County Public Health is hosting vaccine clinics from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays – Saturdays at the Fox River Mall, 4629 W. Michaels Drive, Appleton.
For those in the Winnebago County area, clinics will be held from 3-5 p.m. on Tuesdays (except July 5) at the Fox Crossing Fire Department, 1326 Cold Spring Rd, Neenah; from 3-6 p.m. Wednesdays (except for July 6) at Sunnyview Expo Center, 500 E. County Road Y, Oshkosh; and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays at Ascension Medical Group Wisconsin, 2700 W. 9th Ave., Oshkosh.
The Winnebago County Health Department will host a clinic from 3-5 p.m. Monday at Peace Lutheran Preschool. A second dose clinic will be held from 3-5 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 8 at the preschool.
Additionally, the Winnebago County Health Department will host two clinics from 8 a.m. to noon on July 16 and Aug. 20 at the Oshkosh Farmers Market in front of the Time Community Theater.
Van Auken advises community members to watch for upcoming clinics at the Oshkosh Area School District this summer.
The Multicultural Coalition, Inc. will host vaccine clinics for children 6 months and older from 3:30-6:30 p.m. Wednesday at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, 1250 Leonard Point Road, Oshkosh and rom 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 19 at the Neenah Public Library, 240 E. Wisconsin Ave., Neenah. The Multicultural Coalition, Inc. will update its Facebook page as more clinics are scheduled.
For a complete and updated list of vaccine sites in the Winnebago County area, visit www.wcvaccine.org/vaccination-sites.
Madison Lammert covers child care and early education across Wisconsin as a Report for America corps member. She is based at the Post Crescent in Appleton. To contact her, email [email protected] or call 920-993-7108.
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