August 11, 2020: Submitted by Megan Buhr
In normal years, finding childcare for a school-aged child is a stressful and often expensive part of parenting, but school, after-school programs, camps, babysitters, and friends create a patchwork of options. This year, it’s going to be a struggle for nearly everyone. School schedules are limited, and tenuous. Experienced babysitters and nannies, who normally charge $20-$25 an hour, are in short supply, meaning that rates are edging even higher. Hiring a full time nanny is just not affordable for many families right now.
Is it any wonder that families are turning to childcare “pods”? Ignore the sensational stories about wealthy families hiring expensive private tutors: even in well-heeled Hingham, that isn’t the norm. Most families researching pods are primarily looking for childcare, and small group childcare makes the most sense, both financially and practically, right now. Not only is a pod more affordable when costs are split, it allows the children to play and socialize with one or two other families who all agree on appropriate COVID precautions.
But here’s the bad news: Massachusetts has some of the strictest childcare regulations in the country. Most states allow someone to watch a small number of children in a private home without licensure, but Massachusetts does not. Here, licensing is required for any “care provided in a private residence on a regular basis during part or all of the day,” where money is changing hands.
In other words, if either the homeowner or the babysitter is being paid (even if only to share costs, with no profit involved), the host family has just opened an illegal childcare center.
I have been aware of this issue since pods came on my radar, but assumed that the state would allow some leniency: after all, without full time schools and after-school care, private care is the only option. And since older children need less direct supervision and care than a baby or toddler, a nanny share “pod” with a small group of older children is a safe and economical way to provide playmates during social distancing. However, it looks as though my optimism was misplaced, and messaging from the EEC is currently that pods are illegal, and going to stay illegal. A friend was told that if she wants to host a pod at her house while she goes to work as a nurse, her options are to either get licensed as a childcare facility, or to find an already-licensed facility and convince them to shift their focus to older children. Let them eat cake! High-quality, in-home childcare facilities are already in short supply, and the EEC’s great plan for school-aged childcare is for parents to find an in-home daycare, and convince them to “fire” their current families so that they can teach elementary students until the end of the pandemic?
I have reached out to our legislators a couple of times over the past several months, and have not been satisfied with the answers I received. I get the feeling that they, like most people, assume that the EEC is more flexible than they actually are.
Time is running out, the summer leniency of many employers is drying up, and parents need to work. If a nanny is unaffordable, and a pod is illegal, then the only other legal choice is for parents to scale back their careers: when this happens because of childcare, it is disproportionately women who make career sacrifices. Any state office responsible for childcare should be helping women in the workforce, not actively working against them.
My solution? We need a one year moratorium on the definition of a “home childcare center,” as it is defined in Massachusetts General Laws 606 CMR 7.02. The temporary definition should allow someone to watch up to 6 children (including their own) in their home. 6 is a somewhat arbitrary number, but it would allow two families with 3 children each to “pod” together. If EEC won’t do the right thing, then we need to contact our legislators and put pressure on them to help working parents.
Note that this would not eliminate all regulations or safety measures. These small, in-home, pods and nanny shares would still most likely need to register with the town as a business if money is changing hands. Massachusetts general laws allow childcare-based businesses to operate in residential areas, regardless of local zoning laws, but the town would be responsible for making sure that the home meets appropriate fire, safety and health codes. In addition, most people’s homeowner’s insurance will probably require some sort of approval or additional rider, and may make safety demands, such as restricting the use of swimming pools or trampolines. These basic measures, combined with a “buyer beware” contract that stresses that the pod does not meet EEC standards for childcare, should help protect children, families, and homeowners.
We’re all in the same storm, but not everyone is in the same boat. Some families will be able to hire a private nanny to come to their home and watch and educate their children, but many other families will need to pool their resources to do the same. Please consider contacting your state legislator and senator to ask them to support a temporary change to the definition of a home childcare center.
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