State recommends masks in child care centers, won’t require them

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 8, 2021

SALISBURY — The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services on Friday made itself clear: child care centers are no longer required to enforce mask policies, but it’s strongly recommended they do so.

The department’s Division of Early Child Development and Early Education held a webinar on Friday afternoon to review the latest update to recommendations and rules that have guided child care centers through the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the points in guidance that were requirements now only say centers should maintain these policies. Notably, the shift to recommendations includes a rule that anyone 5 years and older should wear a mask.

Teresa Mowery, child care health consultant for the Rowan County Health Department, said she is not aware of any centers in Rowan County that are not still following the guidance from DHHS. She said the department is now looking at developing its own local COVID-19 policy for centers to make it simpler to explain what they are doing to parents.

Partners in Learning Executive Director Norma Honeycutt said the change is a greater challenge for centers because safety decisions are now in local hands.

“Before it was clear cut,” Honeycutt said.

In Partners in Learning’s case, the nonprofit’s board of directors will direct internal policies. Honeycutt said she will recommend continuing to follow state guidance. In the meantime, precautions such as masks and wellness checks will continue.

Part of the webinar discussion focused on the increased emergency room visits from children who have contracted COVID-19. Mowery noted kids in child care centers are not old enough to be vaccinated, and about 80% of new cases in North Carolina are the highly contagious, Delta variant of COVID-19.

Mowery said layers of protection such as hand washing and mask wearing have been successful in Rowan County, leading to fewer closures than other counties. The centers want to stay open, and their services are important to maintaining other services in the county.

“The other issue that came up with COVID is the importance of the centers,” Mowery said. “People can’t work if there is no one to watch their children.”

Mowery pointed to frontline workers and first responders such as nurses, police and firefighters as people the public counts on who may also be in need of child care.

Local centers have enforced cohort sizes, preventing commingling of students, and removed soft surfaces from classrooms. Mowery said keeping masks on young children and keeping them socially distanced is impossible, but staff members can keep cohorts separate and practice safety measures themselves.

Honeycutt said centers need to consider their own liability as well if they choose to disregard what the state advises

“If you drop guidelines and a child gets very sick, that really puts child care centers in a bad position,” Honeycutt said.