COVID-19 stress has been ‘next level’ for parents of young children in preschool, child care
Cottage parents who work in Aspen School District hope for more virus mitigation measures
Parents with young children enrolled at The Aspen Cottage preschool and child care center in Aspen School District say they are feeling the stress of the recent COVID-19 surge compounded by an awareness that common virus mitigation practices like universal masking and widespread vaccination aren’t realistic or even possible for infants, toddlers and young children.
“My comfort level is not high at all, and it hasn’t been,” said Ada Friedman, a parent of two kids at The Cottage and also works in the business office of the district. “I don’t know — this month has definitely been impossible for everyone, but I think it’s just been next level for everybody with little kids.”
District administrators and public health officials have emphasized from the get-go that universal masking policies have limited virus spread in schools, and vaccinations among staff and students have meant that many folks who do get COVID-19 post-vaccination have mild cases of the illness.
But children under 5 years old are not yet eligible for vaccinations; for toddlers and infants, universal masking just isn’t practicable in the way it might be for students in the elementary, middle and high schools.
To boot, Friedman said she’s found quarantine guidance to be “confusing, complicated (and) everyday stressful” — an assessment evidenced a draft 42-box expanded flow chart detailing the testing and isolation protocol for preschoolers that Pitkin County updated in mid-January.
Though public health authorities have identified children as low risk for severe disease from COVID-19, Friedman said that there’s still a nagging “what if” feeling.
“There’s no parent with a baby that you can tell, ‘Oh, but most babies (don’t get very sick),’” Friedman said. “What if my baby isn’t most babies?”
Friedman and Erica Nottingham — also a Cottage parent who works in the district — said they would like to see amped-up mitigation among the adults that work at The Cottage to better protect children who can’t participate in those practices.
“I feel that it is our responsibility to do absolutely everything possible to make sure that these babies are protected in whatever way adults are capable of protecting them,” said Nottingham, a music teacher with four children enrolled in the district.
Nottingham and Friedman said they would like to see a requirement for N95 masks or other comparable face coverings, which limit virus transmission more than a cloth or surgical mask would. Nottingham said she’d also like to have a guarantee that all staff at The Cottage are vaccinated; the district has a vaccination mandate, but there are some exceptions who must instead be tested twice per week.
The district currently follows the CDC’s best practices for face coverings “strongly recommending” — but not requiring — that “everyone wear a well fitted, multi-layered mask such as a KN95 or N95 respirator, a surgical mask, or double masking with a surgical and cloth mask,” district nurse Robin Stecker wrote in an email.
As for a vaccination promise, Superintendent David Baugh wrote in an email that “it is impossible to guarantee any situation where everyone is vaccinated 100% of the time.”
The virus has complicated work-life balance for district staff like Friedman and Nottingham, creating a ripple effect through The Cottage and classrooms in other buildings outside facility as caregivers navigate staff shortages alongside virus mitigation.
“I think it has just been so exhausting for everybody. … I want everything to work well for everybody right now, like the teachers at The Cottage — it’s hard for them; it’s hard for the people that are getting care there,” Friedman said. “It’s just so hard for everybody.”
Friedman used to be a teacher but left that position in October for a 30-hour-per-week administrative job in the district because of the added child care challenges when her little ones were out sick or in quarantine. Nottingham is still in her role teaching seven classes between the middle school and high school, but she has seen and felt the stress of missing stretches of school when her daughter in The Cottage was home sick or in isolation.
“That impacts hundreds of students and … two sets of programs, two sets of administrators, and it puts an incredible burden on the colleagues who have to not only teach their own course load, but then constantly pick up sub coverage for absent teachers,” Nottingham said.
“The most disappointing piece is that any continued extended absence for a teacher really most negatively impacts the students,” she added.
Nottingham and Friedman emphasized their appreciation for what the district has provided, both in terms of quality of care and accommodations so they can continue to work while navigating the turbulence of COVID-19.
“For my daughter in the infant room, the care is incredibly loving, and I feel that she is well loved and safe. I’m not worried about her safety or that the people aren’t attentive — it’s nothing about the staff or the teachers,” Nottingham said. “It’s more of the greater, global practices.”
The story is the same here in Aspen as it would be anywhere in the country right now, Friedman said.
“It’s a national thing — it’s not specific to the Cottage right now,” she said. “There (are) so many factors that have contributed to the disaster, the crisis that child care is in America right now, and we are just one slice of it.”
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