Proposed new rules worry some child care operators

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Child care operators worry that new health and safety rules being proposed by Mississippi officials could be costly.

The state Health Department is moving to update its rules this fall to more tightly regulate subjects such as where infants sleep, how much television a toddler can watch and what kinds of vehicles can be used to haul children.

Officials met Friday with operators of some of the 1,683 child care centers licensed by the state.

The rules are needed to bring Mississippi in line with recommendations on the best ways to care for children, as well as federal safety standards, officials said.

But some operators complain that the new rules will cost them more at a time when their finances are already pinched. “A lot of this is killing us,” said Marjorie Nobles, a Petal child care operator who sits on the department’s child care advisory panel. “A lot of things going on in child care right now are killing us.”

For example, operators already face a December deadline to replace drop-sided cribs banned by the federal government. A group of child care operators said last week that decreased funding for federally-subsidized child care, along with competition from uninspected home care centers, is causing some centers to close.

Another public hearing will be held, to be followed by a vote of the state Board of Health, said Festus Simkins, the department’s licensing chief.

After a round of critical letters and phone calls, Simkins said he’d already taken steps to ease some of the rules. However, members of the advisory council that voted on the proposal pulled out at least one of those concessions. They objected to a change that would have allowed centers to let infants sleep in playpens, saying the mesh and plastic upholstery on the portable play yards is difficult to keep clean.

Operators also complained about not being able to use 15-passenger vans to transport children. Federal law bans schools from buying new 15-passenger vans, saying they’re vulnerable to flipping over. The state rules would extend that ban to child care centers, although centers could keep using vans they now own. At least one attendee Friday wanted more time to buy a new van that his center could keep using after the ban takes effect.

Simkins tried to persuade the roughly 50 attendees that Health Department enforcement would be reasonable.

“There’s always going to be exceptions in emergency situations,” Simpkins said. But he said some of the changes were directed at getting around literalistic arguments from providers, such as one who claimed that ceiling repairs were unnecessary just because ceilings weren’t specifically named in the regulations. They would be in the new draft.

Advisory council members and operators also expressed fears that the rules would be interpreted literally both by inspectors and providers.

Child care centers have a history of resisting stricter regulation. During the legislative session, resistance from child care operators helped kill an effort supported by Gov. Phil Bryant to move licensure of child care centers to the Department of Human Services. Operators fear that Human Services would impose even more expensive rules aimed at raising the quality of child care. That program is now voluntary, and only about one-third of licensed centers participate.

The proposed rules contain a number of other changes, including:

—Child care workers would be banned from yelling or using “harsh tones” with children in their care.

— Infants and toddlers would be banned from watching television or computers, while older preschoolers would be limited to one hour a day.

— All child care centers would have to be smoke-free.

—Operators would have to provide time for exercise each day.

— Any time a child is taken to a doctor or the hospital, a report would be required.

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