Employer Flexibility, Community Health, and Illness in Early Childcare Centers

A parent checks the temperature of a child
A parent checks the temperature of a child

As parents, we all worry when our child is sick, and we all wish for them to be healthy and experience wellness. As working parents, it is also clearly inconvenient (to us) when our children! In fact, while some parents have the flexibility to keep their children home with even the faintest inkling of a symptom, many parents are required to negotiate the balance between work demands, schedules, or external obligations depending on the severity of a child’s illness.

With increased vigilance at the height of the pandemic, we all became accustomed to reducing the community spread of illness by keeping our germs at home, and many of us, especially those with young children, experienced a multi-year stretch without typically expected common seasonal illnesses. In the emerging landscape of ongoing endemic covid, including pandemic fatigue, plus current economic factors and pressures related to the labor market and generalized stress, we are no longer collectively staying home or masking up in the same way when a potential illness is lurking. The result is that sometimes children arrive at a childcare center slightly under the weather and later end up being sent home with more serious symptoms, exposing many other children and staff in the meantime. We believe that this largely happens because parents are experiencing pressure in other areas and realistic options may feel limited or undesirable.

We recognize in the patterns of sick children and illness circulation that employer policies, specifically workplace flexibility and PTO, directly and indirectly, impact the spread of community illness. It logically follows that parents who lack adequate structure, support, and flexibility to keep a sick child home are effectively incentivized to send a slightly-sick child to school or group care setting, where illnesses spread more rapidly. Additionally, workplace limitations on illness-related flexibility nudge already thinly-stretched parents to often work when we’re feeling less than 100%, as a compensatory balance to sharing PTO days with children’s inevitable needs.

As a community, we rely on one another to support the collective well-being of our larger community as well. We ask and encourage all families to consider each of our responsibilities, needs, and opportunities when our children are sick and practically should be isolated at home. 

We’d like to bravely begin conversations with the employers in our community who rely on their employees (particularly the parents of young children) having access to childcare in order to work. We call upon employers to recognize the system of early childhood care and education as a public good and infrastructure relied upon on behalf of their employees. We believe that employers have a social and ethical responsibility on behalf of the community at large to support the public health of all by offering sufficient flexibility so that children with even mild symptoms can remain at home with a parent. We’d love to join alongside our community in advocating on behalf of the needs of our parents and families, our staff, and our children. Flexible sick policies that benefit families benefit everyone: children, companies, workers, and the economy!

Supporting Children’s Well-Being in an Early Childhood Care Center

We understand that especially within the ongoing pandemic context, we are all wary of more illness in our young children. As a center providing large group experiences, we are in constant communication with the health department and other local agencies and partnerships, including a dedicated nurse consultant. Our health-related policies are also shaped by licensing and health department requirements. Understandably, our perspective as a large center where many children gather daily shapes our understanding of the phenomena of illnesses in group settings differently than, for example, first-time parents who have only experienced parenthood within the context of the pandemic. Amongst our staff and leadership, we are parents to a whole classroom’s worth of children ourselves, so this topic is also personal! 

Data supports that young children in their first years of group care settings will experience higher levels of illness. This is expected, usually normal, and most of the time isn’t cause for alarm. For many families, the succession of illness in children is viewed as nearly a right-of-passage that coincides with the opportunity to encounter common childhood illnesses and build a strong immune system. However, not everyone experiences developmental immune system exposure in the same way, especially families who have been severely impacted by Covid or have other risk factors or considerations.

At Treehouse Learning, we also recognize our role in supporting whole-person well-being, which includes physical health. As we move into fall and winter, quality early childhood centers like ours typically experience an expected influx of common childhood illnesses. In general, it is beneficial for children to be exposed to opportunities to build a healthy immune system! We support children through healthy hygiene practices (handwashing), high-quality nutrition, active outdoor play (movement + sunshine), as well as classroom protocols for sanitizing and cleaning toys and equipment. Our perspective of whole-child development includes supporting all aspects of physical, mental, social, and emotional health, safety, and deepest well-being. 

Healthy Adults Support Healthy Children

Another critical aspect of the value of holistic well-being is the ways in which we support our staff to care for their own health through our own policies and practices as a provider of quality early childhood education in Boulder County. Our understanding of the mind-body connection shapes our emphasis on the overall mental health and emotional well-being of our staff. This informs our policies around offering health insurance and internal wellness initiatives to our staff. We recently changed our academic calendar to align more closely with BVSD, our local school district, in order to embed some paid holidays and time off for staff to mentally and physically recuperate and spend time with their families. We also tweaked our PTO accrual policies so that new employees begin accruing time off immediately. Additionally, we believe that community health necessitates that all early childhood workers, as well as all workers across economic sectors, deserve to be paid a living wage, where they aren’t required to compromise the quality of food choices they make personally in order to make ends meet.

As a community, we collectively support public health when we build systems designed so that humans who are susceptible and prone to human illness have the financial freedom and flexibility to take time off when they are sick. While embedded flexibility within a group childcare setting takes logistical considerations in terms of staffing (the persistent crisis exists here in Colorado and across the nation), the pandemic revealed how crucial the industry of early childhood care and education is for the greater functioning of the larger economy. 

We all rely on systems and structures supporting community-wide wellness. Like an interconnected ecosystem, we all thrive when all parts of our community are thriving. While nature designed children to build healthy immune systems through exposure, recovery, and immunity to common childhood illnesses, we each have a part to play in supporting overall community health. We encourage all in our community with a voice and a platform to build awareness around the policies and practices that impact those around us, and to steward our shared and collective responsibility from a place of concern for both the “we” and the “me.”

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