Parents of young children enrolled at The Aspen Cottage preschool and child care center in the Aspen School District say they are feeling the stress of the recent COVID-19 surge compounded by a realization that common practices Virus mitigations like universal masking and widespread vaccination are not realistic or even possible for infants, toddlers and young children.
“My comfort level isn’t high at all, and it hasn’t been,” said Ada Friedman, a mother of two at The Cottage and also works in the district business office. “I don’t know – this month has definitely been impossible for everyone, but I think it’s just a higher level for everyone with little kids.”
District administrators and public health officials stressed early on that universal masking policies have limited the spread of the virus in schools, and vaccinations among staff and students have meant that many people who contract the COVID-19 after vaccination have mild cases of the disease.
But children under 5 are not yet eligible for vaccinations; for toddlers and infants, universal masking is simply not achievable as it might be for elementary, middle and high school students.
To boot, Friedman said she found the quarantine guidance to be “confusing, complicated (and) stressful on a day-to-day basis” – an assessment highlighted a draft expanded 42-box flowchart detailing testing protocol and isolation for preschoolers that Pitkin County updated in mid-January.
Although public health authorities have identified children as being at low risk of serious illness from COVID-19, Friedman said there was still a lingering sense of “what if.”
“There’s no parent with a baby that you can say, ‘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 enhanced mitigation among adults who work at Cottage to better protect children who cannot participate in these practices.
“I think it’s our responsibility to do absolutely everything we can to make sure these babies are protected in the way adults are able to protect 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. Nottingham said they would also like to be guaranteed that all staff at The Cottage are vaccinated; the district has a vaccination mandate, but there are a few exceptions that should be tested twice a week instead.
The district is currently following CDC best practices for face coverings “strongly recommending” — but not requiring — that “everyone wear a properly fitted, multi-layered mask such as a KN95 or N95 respirator, surgical mask, or double masking with a surgical and cloth mask,” district nurse Robin Stecker wrote in an email.
As for a promise of vaccination, Superintendent David Baugh wrote in an email that “it is impossible to guarantee a 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 across The Cottage and classrooms in other buildings outside the facility as that caregivers manage staff shortages alongside the easing of the virus.
“I think it’s been so exhausting for everyone. … I want everything to work well for everyone right now, like the teachers at The Cottage — it’s hard for them; it’s hard on people getting care there,” Friedman said. “It’s so difficult for everyone.”
Friedman was a teacher, but left that job in October for 30-hour-a-week administrative work in the district due to the added challenges of childcare when her little ones were sick or in quarantine. Nottingham is still in her role as a teacher in seven classes between junior high and high school, but she has seen and felt the stress of missing periods of school when her daughter in The Cottage was home sick or in isolation.
“It impacts hundreds of students and … two sets of programs, two sets of administrators, and it places an incredible burden on colleagues who must not only teach their own course load, but also constantly support the under-coverage of absent teachers,” says Nottingham.
“The most disappointing piece is that any extended and prolonged absence of a teacher really has a very negative impact on students,” she added.
Nottingham and Friedman underlined their appreciation for what the district has provided, both in terms of quality of care and accommodation so they can continue to work while navigating the turmoil of COVID-19.
“For my daughter in the baby’s room, the care is incredibly loving and I feel she is loved and safe. I’m not worried about her safety or people not being attentive – that doesn’t concern either staff or teachers,” Nottingham said. “It’s more about broader, global practices.”
The story is the same here in Aspen as anywhere else 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, to the child care crisis in America right now, and we are just a part of it.”