UPDATE (3:57 p.m. PT) — Officials at the Oregon Early Learning Division have issued new draft guidelines for child care centers, after a combination of new rules, health concerns over COVID-19, and related costs forced hundreds of care providers to close.

In a statement officially releasing the guidance Thursday afternoon, Gov. Kate Brown likened the guidance to the evolving advice given to public school leaders as they wrestle with how to support children's education without fueling spread of coronavirus.

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“Much like K-12 schools, we know that our early childhood programs won’t look the same this fall. But, one thing is clear: We know that kids need safe, caring, quality environments while their parents are at work,” Brown said in a written statement.

The 29 pages of guidance are broken into 14 sections, including revisions to drop-off and pick-up procedures, modifications for how to organize students into "stable groups," and an expanded section on how to adequately clean and maintain buildings. The draft includes four entirely new guidance areas on family engagement, professional development, transportation and a "health and safety plan" section.

State officials have been working on guidance for months, in an effort to support Oregon's struggling economy by providing supervision for children as parents return to work. The effort is an inexact science, as scientific understanding of the risks of coronavirus continue to change.

Deep in the document, in the section on "Group Sizes and Stable Groups," the guidance acknowledges an unanswered question likely on the minds of many parents of young children: "The available scientific evidence is inconclusive about whether transmission of COVID-19 occurs commonly in young children."

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The requirements are complex and detailed. For instance, the rules for facial coverings are different, depending on the ages of the people involved. All staff must wear face coverings at all times — that's a tighter rule than in previous guidance, which only required masks for staff who interacted with multiple groups of children.

Children who are at least five are also required to wear face coverings, consistent with a mandate  Brown issued earlier this week. For children between two and five, wearing a mask is up to the parent or guardian; and toddlers and infants under two in daycare settings should not wear masks "because safety considerations outweigh the benefit of reducing transmission," according to stakeholder input.

Several guidance areas, including drop-off and pick-up guidance, differentiate between what’s “required” and what’s “recommended” — a distinction that some child care professionals felt wasn’t sufficiently clear under previous guidance. Among the new requirements is a mandate that children are dropped off and picked up outside of the facility, and that adults wear face coverings as they interact at the facility door. Recommendations include doing staggered drop-off and pick-up times to avoid crowds of parents arriving at one time. Having the same adult always doing the transfer is also a recommendation, not a requirement.

One of the biggest challenges facing child care providers had to do with group sizes and maintaining stable groups, because the restrictions limited how many children could be cared for at one time — and therefore limited how much income a center could receive from tuition-paying families. The new guidance says, “Revisions propose returning to maximum group sizes as defined by child care licensing requirements for different types of providers.”

Underlying all the new guidance is a question of how comfortable parents will be in returning their children to child care settings — and whether former child care workers are ready to return to work, as COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise.

The new guidance provides more specific regulations than before and integrates input from people in the field. For instance, there's an emphasis on consistently asking screening questions to avoid bias, particularly a question on whether children or the person dropping the child off have had any interaction with a person who has tested positive for the virus in the last ten days.

"Child care providers should strictly follow the checklist and respond in a yes/no fashion," the guidance said. "The guidance should be clear on what to do about 'yes' responses and who can enter the premises."

In the case of answering "yes," the guidance says the person must be excluded and directed to quarantine for 14 days.

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