COVID cases prompt temporary closure at YS Community Children’s Center
- Published: September 1, 2021
Emotions are frayed among families and staff affiliated with the Yellow Springs Children’s Center, which has closed its doors until Sept. 7 in response to an outbreak of COVID-19 among students and teachers at the center. But some conciliatory actions on the part of the Children’s Center board were reportedly occurring as the News went to press this week.
An emergency meeting Tuesday evening followed accusations by some parents that the center’s staff had not taken stringent enough safety precautions amid the ongoing rise of the virus’ more contagious Delta variant, with those parents saying they felt the center’s leadership not only belittled their health concerns this summer, but also misled families about the vaccination status of staff. At least three families have withdrawn their children in response to the situation, and an online meeting with the board last week included two separate parental calls for the executive director’s dismissal.
Other parents, however, have likened the outcry that came to a head this past week as a “witch hunt,” while staff members staunchly defend the 95-year-old center’s record of child care and express unflagging support for Executive Director Malissa Doster, whom they feel has been unfairly attacked.
Meanwhile, the viral outbreak at the center has apparently spread, not only among Children Center families, but also into the public school system, which is reporting an uptick of cases believed to be tied to the daycare.
“This has been a stressful time for Yellow Springs parents,” Dorothée Bouquet, the mother of a pre-schooler and another child who attends Mills Lawn Elementary, said in a phone interview earlier this week.
The center’s Alicia Chereton says the daycare is feeling the weight of circumstances as well.
“I don’t want us to be rallying against each other,” Chereton said during a meeting between the board and families last week. “We’ve been here almost 100 years; [the pandemic is] a very difficult situation to navigate.”
The outcome of Tuesday night’s meeting will be covered in a future News story. This article looks at the situation heading into this week, including the center’s temporary shutdown.
Timeline of cases
The current closure of the daycare until Tuesday, Sept. 7, extends by a week an initial 10-day shutdown that began Aug. 21 after a mother reported that she and her ill child had tested positive for the virus. Two pre-K teachers soon tested positive as well, according to Executive Director Doster, who reported the cases to the county health department.
As of Monday this week, a total of eight children – one infant and seven in pre-K – as well as three teachers – one in a preschool classroom and two in pre-K – have been reported as testing positive for COVID-19, according to Doster. The numbers were confirmed by Greene County Public Health.
In an email response to questions from the News, Doster wrote that the first child to test positive was sent home Wednesday morning, Aug. 18, because he didn’t feel well. He remained at home the rest of the week and received his positive test result that Saturday.
Prior to notifying the health department, Doster sent an email to families, dated Aug. 21, informing them of the situation and notifying them of the 10-day shutdown, with a reopening date then set for Tuesday, Aug. 31.
The subsequent rise in the number of cases as well as an increasingly volatile atmosphere preceded the extension of the closure for an additional week, which was announced in an email to families on Sunday, Aug. 29.
That email also listed a new set of protocols that will be put in place with the Sept. 7 reopening, including mask wearing by all staff as well as by students two years of age and older, except when eating or occasional times outdoors.
Changing COVID policies
The new requirements were good news for some parents who have been asking for more masking since Ohio’s state of emergency was lifted in June.
“We have been begging the center with tears just to follow the AAP [American Association of Pediatricians] guidelines,” parent Erin Ritter said last week during the board of trustees meeting.
Initially closed at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the center reopened two months later with reduced enrollment and heightened cleaning protocols and was able to stay open with no COVID cases for over a year, until the recent outbreak.
Staff members have spoken proudly of that record, pointing to it as evidence of their diligence against the virus.
“We have done so much to give the children a clean environment they can flourish in, not only academically, but in their social-emotional development as well,” Chereton wrote in a message to the News.
According to health officials and other medical experts, the best defense against COVID-19, which is an airborne virus, is wearing face masks and maintaining physical distancing. With the state’s lifting of emergency measures, however, as well as a reduction, at the time, in the number of community cases, the center instituted a policy that required only unvaccinated adults to wear a mask while on its premises. No one was asked about their vaccination status, according to Doster, who has said she expected that unvaccinated adults would follow the masking rules.
“Since the vaccination is very new and I 100% respect an individual’s privacy, I was very wary about asking someone to disclose their personal medical information,” Doster wrote in an email reply to questions from the News. “So in good faith, I assumed that since all staff did not wear masks after we were able to unmask if vaccinated (per DeWine in June), that all staff were vaccinated.”
As the new academic year approached, and COVID cases began to surge regionally and across the state and nation, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Association of Pediatrics issued recommendations that anyone 2 years of age and older should wear a mask indoors regardless of vaccination status.
Soon after those recommendations were announced, the Children’s Center updated its policies in late July to require that unvaccinated adults wear masks at all times, while vaccinated adults were supposed to wear them when they entered the facility’s common areas, including the hallways and lobby. Vaccinated teachers could remain unmasked in their classrooms, and no student was asked to wear a face covering. That was the policy in place when the center’s first COVID cases were reported.
Several parents have told the News that they expressed concerns before the outbreak that the updated measures were still not enough, especially when children younger than 12 cannot yet be vaccinated. In separate interviews, the parents individually said they were told by center staff that they were alone in expressing these concerns.
Several also contend that the new rules were haphazardly followed, reporting having witnessed staff in the reception area raise dangling masks to their proper position only upon the entry of a visitor, along with seeing teachers in common areas without a face covering as required.
Perhaps more upsetting to a number of parents is the fact that the center’s late July email stated that the staff was 100% vaccinated, an assertion that center leadership has since confirmed was incorrect.
Meeting with the board
Strong feelings were on display Thursday, Aug. 26, when the center’s board of trustees added time to the previously scheduled annual meeting and subsequent monthly business meeting to hear from families and staff concerning the COVID outbreak and the daycare’s pandemic-related policies.
More than 35 people attended the evening meeting through the Zoom video conference platform. Board President Caroline Mullin, who is executive director of the YS Senior Center, conducted the meeting, and board Vice President Florence Randolph, the community outreach specialist for the Yellow Springs Police Department, helped facilitate. Other members of the board are Ed Amrhein, who was newly voted in during the annual meeting; Secretary Lynn Sontag, a Yellow Springs resident and former teacher at the daycare; and Sheranita Hemphill, a village resident who has two children who attend the center. Amrhein, who lives in Miami Township, has two young adult children and recently retired from the Beavercreek Planning Department. The treasurer’s position is currently vacant, as the previous treasurer, Jasmine Moore, was voted off the board during Thursday’s meeting after reportedly not responding to attempts to reach her for over three months. Mullin noted that the board is seeking more members. The center’s website does not appear to include any details about the board, including names and contact information.
During the business meeting, Doster gave a brief report about the past year, prior to the current outbreak, halting at one point, overcome by emotion, while extolling staff member’s dedication and care throughout the pandemic.
“It’s very scary, it’s very frustrating,” to hear the current criticisms, she said.
She also reported that the center received $23,000 in grants after its June 2020 reopening, with a large portion of the funds used to buy PPE products as well as new air conditioning and an air purifier system.
Concerning the community interest in discussing the “current COVID situation” at the daycare, Mullin began by saying she “appreciated how much energy, how much care, is going into this conversation tonight.”
Participants were given five minutes to share their thoughts, with Randolph monitoring the clock.
First to speak was the center’s Chereton, who defended the daycare and asserted the staff’s devotion to the children in their care.
A dozen of the center’s approximately 50 students are children of staff members, including Doster’s three.
“I’ve been there for almost six years,” Chereton said. “We really try hard to make it the best we can.”
She said that criticism of the center and its staff has been painful.
“I feel it’s coming from a fear-based place, not understanding there’s more at play. … It’s been hard to see the community come at us like that. It hurts me a lot.”
Mark Baker, who was on the call with his wife, Maria Rauch, said he has “absolutely no doubt” that the staff cares about the center’s children.
But, added the father of three, “sometimes good people make bad decisions.”
Baker said he is especially appalled by the late July communication that asserted a 100% vaccination status for staff, which he characterized as a lie.
“I don’t know who lied, but they should be held accountable,” he said.
Baker also said he felt that Doster, whether she knew the truth or neglected to confirm it, had shown more concern for “her unvaccinated staff than the children of the center,” which led him to believe she should be removed as director.
Doster countered that she is “absolutely qualified” to continue as the executive director, a position she’s held for five years, and any suggestion otherwise is “outrageous.”
Tommy Spijkers, whose 1-year-old son is the infant who has tested positive for COVID, also called for Doster’s dismissal.
Spijkers said he believes Doster knew her 100% vaccination statement was false, in part because an employee had repeatedly stated negative views about vaccinations and masks in public comments on Facebook. Spijkers said Doster’s handling of her staff “shows she is unfit to lead the center in this crisis, and she should be removed.”
Another parent, Jonina Kelley, didn’t join the calls for dismissal, but was unflinching in her assessment.
“You have failed our children,” Kelley said. “You haven’t made every effort possible to keep our children safe.”
Kelley said her 4-year-old, who began attending the center in June, has also tested positive for COVID.
“I really like Malissa, and I really like the staff. But I’m a parent and my child has a 103-degree fever right now — I’m furious.”
Parent Michael Dunbar and another father identifying himself as “KB” both spoke in support of Doster and the center’s staff.
The Children’s Center “is the cleanest and most germ-free center I’ve ever come by,” Dunbar said, adding that the staff are “amazing caregivers.”
He also asserted that getting vaccinated “is a personal choice,” and if Doster passed along incorrect information then “it was a mistake,” rather than an intentional falsehood.
Noting that the Center had moved up from a one-star state rating to the highest five-star rating under Doster’s leadership, he said that “you would have to be the silliest, most brainless people” to let her go.
“The center is the best daycare I have seen,” he continued. “This is ridiculous. This is a witch hunt. Look at the overall picture. A mistake was made; forgive the mistake.”
The inaccurate declaration that all staff were vaccinated was significant for Anna and Ben Hall.
“It feels like we were let down,” Anna Hall said. “It feels like we were betrayed.”
The Hall’s 4-year-old son has attended the center off-and-on since he was 2, the parents said.
Now, he also has tested positive for COVID. And Anna, who is vaccinated and 19 weeks pregnant with the couple’s second child, tested positive as well this past weekend.
The Halls said they had made the decision to keep their son enrolled at the center based on the declared 100% vaccination status, which they now describe as “misinformation.”
Ben Hall said he accepts that people have different opinions about getting vaccinated, but as a “customer” of the children’s center, his family needs correct information in order to make an informed decision. The couple, which in a followup interview stressed their appreciation and support for the center’s teachers, have since withdrawn their child.
Erin Ritter said that being able to trust the staff is imperative.
“Our teachers are very important to us, and our son loves them,” she said. “We need to know that the people taking care of our children are not lying.”
Doster, for her part, defended her record and the center’s COVID response.
“There is no way of stopping this virus,” she said. “We’re never going to escape it.,” adding that many child care centers are “dealing with the same thing.”
“I do not live at the center. I do not live my life on Facebook. I am 38 years old. I work over 40 hours a week. I care very much about your children and the spread of the virus. After a year-and-a-half of no cases, to now hear that I’m unfit to hold this role — I’ve helped build the center up. I think it’s ridiculous that you guys would go on Facebook and say I need to leave my job and to say that I’m unfit. …You’re creating a hostile environment.”
New board member Amrhein noted the difficulty of the situation for all involved.
“We’re dealing with something completely unprecedented here,” he said. “Nobody has that experience, and we’re not getting direct and clear guidance from the powers that be.”
Given that, he asked parents for patience as the center moves forward.
“It’s right and just, then, that we take time to make decisions about this.”
Asked this week by the News to address the center’s reluctance this summer to require mask wearing for all adults and children two and older, Doster wrote:
“As educators we understand the importance of making daily connections with our students. We also understand that without a strong social and emotional foundation, students will lack the ability to understand the feelings of others, control their own feelings and behaviors and get along with peers.”
“Effective social and emotional support in ECE [early children education] consists of having the ability to read facial expressions and listen to the tone of voice which in turn helps students understand emotions. Students also extend their vocabulary by reading lips during conversations, stories and singing. These connections help our students (6 weeks–12 years) establish healthy relationships, build vocabulary, understand and manage their emotions. They also teach students how to feel and show empathy towards others, make responsible choices and work towards goals to further their development.”
She wrote that the needs were especially pronounced this summer.
“In June 2021, more families began to enroll their children, and we saw a lot of children lacking strong social and emotional skills due to the effects of the pandemic isolation. We have been working hard every day to re-establish and strengthen those skills for our students so that they can achieve success throughout their school years.”
In recent News interviews with parents, two noted that Doster had told them that about 75% of staff were vaccinated, contrary to the 100% statement in the late July email. Asked about the discrepancy, Doster wrote:
“When the vaccine rolled out earlier in the year, I helped a handful of staff members sign up for vaccinations. There were two women (who are no longer employed at the center) that declined my help and said they were unsure if they were going to get vaccinated.”
According to Doster, her statements to those parents were based on that information.
The outbreak at the center continues to have repercussions in the community as more cases are reported and affected families quarantine.
Yellow Springs Schools have been especially hard hit.
The district has reported seven current cases, with at least half connected to the outbreak at the center. Seventeen Yellow Springs students were in quarantine at the start of the week, four from possible exposure to an infected classmate and 13 from possible exposure outside of the school setting.
Contacted by the News, Superintendent Terri Holden declined to specify which school and classrooms have been most affected, but reports from parents indicate that a kindergarten and fifth-grade classroom at Mills Lawn have seen the brunt of the district’s cases.
In an Aug. 26 letter to district families concerning the outbreak at the children’s center, Holden wrote that while the district has provided transportation in the past for students in the center’s after-care program, the district and center have separate policies and governing bodies.
Asked this week about the relationship this school year between the district and the center, Holden wrote in an email that the district has not been providing bus service to the center as in past years because of a vacancy in the transportation staff.
The News will continue to report on the situation at the Children’s Center in future issues.