Texas pushes for kids to return to normal during pandemic

By JIM VERTUNO Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — After months of home schooling and lost sports seasons, millions of Texas children may get a taste of a somewhat normal summer after all — if their parents go for it.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this week said child care facilities can reopen immediately and set the stage for a return to summer camp, youth sports leagues and even summer school.

All come with guidelines on just how to do it amid the coronavirus pandemic, including sanitation practices and limits on how many children can be in one place. They also require parents to keep their distance from one another while celebrating a goal, home run or dunk.

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It’s all welcome news for Whitt Melton, co-owner of Legendary Black Belt Academy in the Dallas suburb of Richardson. The business has been open to offer child care for essential workers but will now expand and open its planned summer camp.

Melton said he hopes to boost enrollment from the current seven children to a maximum of 30 a day, which would allow him to maintain proper social distancing measures for kids and instructors. But he doesn’t expect the ramp up to happen right away.

“I don’t think it’s going to be overnight,” Melton said. “We have to build trust with the community, and people have to trust that the state is making the right decision.”

Count Kara Conway of the Dallas suburb of Lewisville among the cautious.

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Before the pandemic, the 40-year-old mother of boys aged 4, 7 and 10 had planned keep the youngest in day care for the summer while a babysitter took the older boys to sports camps and other activities.

Even when her husband returns to the office, she’ll keep working from the house for the summer and keep the kids at home, bringing in a babysitter for a few hours each day.

“We just didn’t want to risk sending him off to day care unnecessarily,” she said. “Even though I’m working, there’s really no reason for me to send my child to a place that I just don’t know who else is going there and what everybody else is doing and where everyone else has been.”

Health officials say kids have gotten COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, less frequently than adults and often less severely. But the disease has killed some children, and they can spread it without showing symptoms.

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The return of child care, summer camps and sports was part of Abbott’s “Phase 2” of reopening one of the world’s largest economies. Day care and camp options for parents aren’t just considered critical to getting children out of the house but for freeing up parents to return to work.

Democratic leaders of Texas’ largest cities have worried the reopening is happening too quickly as the state sees a surge in deaths and cases of COVID-19. But Abbott has defended the plan by noting that Texas is ramping up testing and contact tracing, and that the daily rate of infection has dropped under 5%.

Abbott said child care facilities should operate under federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

According to Child Care Aware, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable child care, nearly every state is allowing child care facilities to operate on some level. Texas is joining the latest group to announce it would expand beyond just offering care for families of essential workers.

The summer reopening expands May 31 when summer camps and youth sports programs such as Little League Baseball can resume under similar social distancing guidelines.

Some states already allow youth sports and tournaments. Like them, Texas will have to figure out how to balance competition with the ethical choices of putting children and their families at risk.

Little League Baseball has canceled its annual World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. While some Texas leagues have already canceled, others quickly embraced the news they could return.

In the East Texas city of Lufkin, which had a team make the 2017 Little League World Series final, the season is part of the fabric of the community and families are eager to get their league playing again, said Parks and Recreation Director Mike Flynn.

“In springtime our park is usually full of spectators,” Flynn said. “It just hasn’t felt right. It’s like Friday night without football. Finally, we”re getting these kids out of the house and some sense of normalcy swinging a bat, catching a ball and playing games.”

But just like day care, some parents are cautious about playing sports.

Joi Bailey, 49, of the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, has a 14-year-old daughter who plays club volleyball. Mom has mixed feelings about a return to practice and play as the team considers what to do.

 “I think volleyball with middle school or high school girls might be OK because it’s not really a contact sport,” Bailey said. “But I know how the girls like to be in the same proximity and close together. How do we do that safely is definitely a concern.”


Associated Press reporter Jamie Stengle contributed from Dallas.