Day care rule changes on the way

Unregulated summer camps to get extended state oversight

hduncan@macon.comMarch 18, 2013 

Georgia’s day care regulators are changing or adding rules to better protect and educate children in day care.

The changes affect everything from teacher training and screening to safe sleeping.

The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning has also launched a study of summer camps, potentially a first step in expanding state oversight to a category of care that had been exempt from such rules.

A new requirement that Georgia day care workers receive federal fingerprint background checks passed in the Georgia House of Representatives, and a Senate committee is now considering the measure.

Unlike most states, Georgia currently requires only state background checks, and last year day care providers had opposed federal checks. They were concerned the checks would cause unreasonably long hiring delays or cost so much that they would drive off job candidates in an industry with a high turnover rate.

But the Department of Early Care and Learning worked with providers on the details, and this year’s bill enjoys broad support.

The bill was authored by Allen Peake, R-Macon, after a Florida felon was found to be in charge of Progressive Christian Academy in Macon.

Carolyn Salvador, executive director of the Georgia Child Care Association, said her group, which represents day care centers, wanted the federal fingerprinting requirement to also extend to after-school programs, “mother’s morning out” part-day programs, and camps, too.

The federal background checks would require a change in the law, but other changes can be made directly by the Department of Early Care and Learning.

Proposed new safe sleeping rules are to take effect soon. These would allow day cares to use only specially pre-approved cribs. Blankets, stuffed animals and other comfort objects, and mobiles would no longer be allowed in cribs. Infant swaddling would be permitted only with a detailed doctor’s note. Infants could no longer sleep in playpens, and infants who fall asleep in swings, car seats, bouncers or other equipment would have to be moved to a crib immediately.

On the other end of the spectrum, one new requirement that just went into effect has been relaxed.

In 2009, the board of Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning voted to require a child development associate degree or the equivalent for day care lead teachers and directors. Workers had until December 2012 to complete it.

Some of them have not done so, but they are now able to apply for a waiver. The state is granting temporary waivers for some day care employees who have started but not received the credential, and permanent waivers for teachers with seven years’ experience or more.

“What we’re trying to avoid is throwing the system into crisis by not having enough teachers,” said Bobby Cagle, commissioner of the department. “As an agency, we can’t look at the utopian version of what a system should look like. We don’t want to lose very experienced workers, if we think they’re in the neighborhood of what they need to meet requirements” for an child development associate degree.

He added, “Ask any (child care) provider: The fact that a person has a CDA does not make them a good child care provider.” Asked why the state would then have such a requirement, he noted that it was put in place under his predecessor, Holly Robinson.

Salvador praised Cagle’s flexibility on the issue. She said many day care teachers hold multiple jobs and many of them are single mothers, both of which make it difficult to find time to take classes.

“This will help programs retain those long-term, nurturing teachers that have been unable to go back to school,” she said.

She noted that the state just received results from a University of North Carolina study of pre-K quality that found a correlation between greater student progress and greater teacher experience with pre-K.

Time of stress

Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, said although she wants the best-equipped teachers in the day care classroom, the last few years have been a time of great economic stress to the industry and to individuals.

“So I think flexibility is appropriate at least as a short-term measure, in order to make sure there is access for kids to the highest quality care we can give them at the time,” she said.

The state’s new quality rating system for day cares, which has been rolling out over the past year, will give the state a chance to see how much the education requirements -- or the waivers -- affect outcomes for kids, she said.

The Department of Early Care and Learning supervises day care centers, family home day cares and larger group home day cares. Day cares that operate for a limited number of hours, such as after-school programs for school-age children or “mother’s morning out” programs for infants and younger children, are exempt from state regulation. So are summer camps.

Many childcare advocates, as well as conventional day care centers, have argued that these need supervision, too.

“We’d like to minimize all exemptions,” Salvador said, saying the move would better protect children and level the playing field among childcare providers.

The department’s board has asked it to take a closer look at the roughly 7,000 summer camps that have received exemptions over the years, Cagle said. They range from conventional YMCA camps to camps with horseback riding and skeet shooting, activities the department has never before regulated.

“We’re really trying to do a system assessment to determine exactly what we’re dealing with,” Cagle said. “It’s easy to advocate that all exemptions should be done away with, but I think that is a mistake without being sure what exactly we have out there.”

He also pointed out that his inspectors already have case loads of 120 early childhood programs, and he questioned whether they could handle more.

Cagle said the department has hired additional staff to contact all the camps the state has in its (paper) files to create an updated database. At the same time, those workers will make sure the camps are aware that Georgia now requires them to post a notice stating that the camp is not a licensed child care provider.

“The first real step toward doing anything is having parents understand what they’re buying,” Cagle said.

Department employees will also visit a selection of camps this summer in person.

After it has gathered more information, the department will recommend to its board whether to make any policy changes, Cagle said.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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