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St. Louis area day care centers outline new safety measures for reopening

Temperatures taken at the door and toys on rotation are just some of the changes day care centers are using to keep children safe

ST. LOUIS — When school would usually be letting out for summer, some youngsters in St. Louis will have first-day jitters.

Reopening plans for St. Louis city and St. Louis County allow day care centers to reopen on May 18. But the classrooms will look much different than how the kids remember.

"This is their first day back at school, and it's a do-over," said Steve Zwolak, executive director of University City Children's Center.

His center has been open for a few weeks for the children of essential workers and plans to reopen for the rest of their families May 26. Parents have one request.

"They're asking us to provide something that resembles normal, and our challenge is we may not give them an accurate look at what normal is," Zwolak said.

Changes start when kids arrive. Parents have to drop them off outside, and they'll be escorted in by a staff member.

Temperatures will be taken at the door.

All adult workers will wear masks. 

The county has mandated that children under 2 years old will not need to wear masks, while St. Louis city said children under 9 years old do not need masks. Some day cares will not require masks for any of their kids in classrooms.

Blankets used during nap time will be tossed into the washing machine after use. Toys will be sanitized immediately after they’re played with and rotated into classrooms after they’re cleaned.

Classrooms will be significantly emptier to comply with social distancing guidelines. The amount of kids allowed in a class depends on the building’s square footage. At University City Children's Center, just 10 children are allowed per class, and that means they've had to hire new teachers to create more classes.

The center is trying to offset the emotional impact the changes will have on the children.

“We want to make sure all centers are thinking about the additional effects. How do we make sure the child feels loved, a sense of belonging, and a sense of power when they come back into the building,” explained Laura Millkamp, director of University City Children’s Center.

The center's new procedures have been developed through weekly calls with St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and other daycare providers, while adhering to CDC and other healthcare provider recommendations.

All of these changes may be overwhelming for children who had become used to a routine at a once-familiar place. Teachers and caretakers at the center have been connecting with families and children over Zoom and YouTube to prepare them for what’s to come.

“We've been teaching them about masks and thermometers so when it does come to that time they aren't scared,” explained Millkamp. “They’ll remember, ‘Oh my teacher Ms. Samantha showed me what this is, it’s not scary if she uses it.”

As families prepare for a return to a place that's now unfamiliar, parents may notice their children are unusually irritable. Millkamp says that's how children express stress and frustration.

“They are starving for social interaction. They are starving for friends,” she said. “I think it's so important now more than ever to be patient with our children.”

Not all day care centers will open when they're allowed. The executive director of SouthSide Early Childhood Center said it'll remain closed likely into June.

A lack of access to PPE and sanitation supplies for workers is one reason the center is holding off on reopening.

"We want to be there for families, but also need support in order to do so safely," executive director Kate Rahn said. 

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