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How to provide physical distancing in the early education setting

When planning to provide care for young children during COVID-19, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to find reliable advice. On a daily basis, you face critical decisions such as: how should you screen for an illness; what do you need to change in your child care space; what should you do if a COVID-19 case happens in your program; and is physical distancing even possible with young children?

That’s why the Quality First Child Care Health Consultant program developed the Arizona Quality First Recommendations for Safe Child Care Operations During COVID-19 guide. This guide provides early childhood programs with access to relevant information on national best practices, with practical strategies for implementation, all in one place. Recommendations are based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) and the Caring for Our Children, 4th edition- National Health and Safety Performance Standards Guidelines for Early Care and Education Programs.

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting the relevant topics you’ll find in the guide. The excerpt below focuses on physical distancing in the child care setting.

Physical Distancing

As you strive to keep children safe, physical distancing will be an important part of your strategy. When possible, limit group sizes, the number of staff members caring for a child, and the number of spaces a child is in during the day. We acknowledge that social distancing is very challenging in a child care setting. Consider each of the following to determine if you are currently following the strategy or if the strategy is possible for you. Each suggestion may reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Note: Child care programs are required, at a minimum, to maintain ratios and adhere to the ADHS/DES rules and regulations including supervision of children.

  • Administrative staff telework from their homes when possible.

Signage and Marking Areas with 6 Feet Spacing

  • Signage is posted in key areas throughout the facility to remind staff and children to keep 6 feet of distance whenever possible, use face coverings (staff and/or children) and wash hands.
  • Waiting areas have 6 feet spacing markings.
  • Appropriate distancing is demonstrated to children using concrete examples. (e.g. carpet squares, child friendly pictures taped to the floor, hula hoops)
  • Move furniture to allow for increased spacing.

Limiting Visitors

  • Designated adults pick up and drop off children outside the building if possible. Consider Arizona heat, UV index and weather conditions when planning arrival and departure procedures. See page 5 for more information on arrival and departure procedures.
    • Consider the use of shade structures.
    • Ensure staffing patterns include support for arrival and departure to reduce wait times and ensure ratios.
  • Nonessential visitors are not allowed, including activities involving external groups or organizations.
  • Only children and staff who are required for daily operations and ratio are allowed inside the building and classrooms. Included as part of the daily operations are:
    • Professionals who support children with special health care needs, early intervention screening services, and providers for children with Individualized Family Services Plans (IFSP), and service providers for children with Individual Education Plans (IEP) working in compliance with their agency protocols are allowed to be in the classroom once screened for health symptoms. Providers are encouraged to work collaboratively with professionals to safely meet the needs of children in their care.
    • Licensing Surveyors, regulatory authorities, law enforcement, Department of Child Safety (DCS), and emergency services personnel.
    • Mothers who are breastfeeding to meet the nutritional needs of breastfeeding infants.
    • Parents/Guardians that request entry into their child’s classroom.
    • Coaches, Mental Health Consultants, Child Care Health Consultants, and Inclusion Coaches augment the quality of the program and are encouraged to continue supports through virtual and varied communication methodologies.

Limiting Mixing of Groups/Children/Staff

During this time, staffing patterns and group size should be reviewed and substitute/back up care considered to help minimize risk. To the maximum extent possible consider the following:

  • Each group of children are kept in their assigned rooms throughout the day with the same child care providers, including at naptime and for meals.
  • Children do not mix with other groups of children.
    • Staggered playground times
    • Groups kept separate for activities (meals, naptime, art, music, etc.)
  • Teachers are restricted to one classroom with one group of children.
  • To reduce the number of people coming in and out of classrooms, the use of “floater” teachers are limited to one per classroom to provide coverage for staff at meal time and breaks.
  • Activities that involve bringing together large groups of children or activities that do not allow for social distancing have been discontinued, including in-person field trips, large groups using playground equipment simultaneously, etc.
    • Virtual events such as field trips, parents and family meetings and special performances have been incorporated where possible.
  • Areas that are used by more than one group are cleaned and disinfected between groups.

Mealtime and Snacks

  • Children are spaced out as much as possible, ideally 6 feet apart. This may require the addition of tables in the classroom environment.
  • Meals typically served family-style are suspended. Each child’s meal is plated to serve so that multiple children are not using the same serving utensils.


  • At naptime, children’s naptime mats (or cribs) are spaced out as much as possible, ideally 6 feet apart.
  • Children are placed head to toe during naptime to prevent the virus from spreading.

Limit Sharing of Equipment and Materials

  • Personal items such as toys and blankets brought into the facility are limited because this can be a way to transmit the virus. Note: In order to support children’s sense of security, items that help children transition, self-regulate and help them calm down are considered important to include at the program.
  • Individual supplies such as art materials are used whenever possible and labeled.
  • Water play and sensory play such as sand or playdough activities are prohibited or set up for individual play with no sharing of equipment and materials.
  • There is a designated bin out of reach of children for separating mouthed toys.
    • Teachers maintain awareness of children’s behaviors. When a child is finished with a mouthed toy, it is removed and placed in a toy bin that is inaccessible to other children, and hands are washed.
    • Toys are cleaned and sanitized before returning to the children’s area.
  • Increase outdoor time when possible in your program. Consider heat and UV index.
  • If possible, open windows and use fans to improve air flow. Do not open windows and doors if doing so poses a safety or health risk for occupants, including children. Ensure open windows should have screens.


Sing Along Song to Help Children Understand Physical Distancing
Family and Children’s Books Related to COVID-19

This is an excerpt from the Arizona Quality First Recommendations for Safe Child Care Operations During COVID-19 guide. The Quality First Child Care Health Consultant program has developed this document to assist child care programs to make informed decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Quality First, we love to hear from you! Share your new and innovative practices so others can be inspired. Send an email to QualityFirst@FirstThingsFirst.org.