AUGUSTA — The city’s child care program, shut down earlier this month after two positive COVID-19 tests, will remain closed for a week longer than first planned.

The Augusta child care program, which shut down Dec. 9 and was scheduled to reopen Monday, has delayed its reopening to Jan. 4 due to concern coronavirus cases could spike again post-Christmas as they did following the Thanksgiving holiday.

According to Bethany Sproul-LeBrun, child care director for the city, the delay would give 10 days for anyone who may have contracted coronavirus on or before Christmas Day to show symptoms so they know they have the disease. That would avoid an earlier return and potentially finding out, after other children or staff have been infected, that someone had the virus but wasn’t yet showing symptoms.

“We felt it was in the best interest of the families and staff involved, with the incredible spike of the COVID-related stuff,” said Leif Dahlin, community services director. “We’re at the apex, I hope, of this. We felt we needed to do this, on behalf of kids and their families. Not for a moment do we enjoy doing this, because we know the families need this.”

State and local officials have expressed concerns there will be another increase in COVID-19 cases due to some families getting together for Christmas, as they said took place following the Thanksgiving holiday, and potentially exposing themselves and others to the highly contagious virus.

“With Christmas and a lot of people doing what they did at Thanksgiving, which caused a spike in the spike, that was part of the rationale,” Dahlin said. “Some can’t stay away from family, I get that. But it can be a bad decision.”

Dahlin said there have been no additional positive COVID-19 tests since a child and then a staff member with the program tested positive earlier this month before closure.

He and Sproul-LeBrun said they and workers in the child care program understand how badly the program is needed and the impact the closure has on parents. Many of the parents are employed full time, some in jobs designated as essential, and have relied on the program to provide a safe place for their children to be while they work.

“Although we understand the hardship and strain this is placing on families, we continue to be driven by the safest protocols in providing care to avoid a long-term shutdown in the future,” Sproul-LeBrun wrote in a Dec. 22 message to families with children in the program. “We appreciate our families support and understanding as we navigate this surge in the pandemic. Our top priority will continue to be the safety and well being of all the children, families and staff.”

Dahlin noted the reopening will now coincide with the reopening of classes in Augusta schools, which will resume, though only remotely, Jan. 4. Students aren’t expected to return to their classrooms in person until Jan. 19.

About 45 children remained in the child care program at the time of its temporary closure.

Sproul-LeBrun said every room has been deep cleaned and sanitized. Fees for the program are being adjusted, she said, so families will not be charged for care during the closure.

Earlier this month the city had about 20 employees, most of them in the parks and recreation department, in quarantine due to concerns they were exposed to a co-worker who had COVID-19.

Dahlin said Monday those workers ended up testing negative for COVID-19 and have returned to work, though two parks and recreation employees are currently out of work in quarantine because each had a family member test positive for the virus.

Maine reported 439 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, and three additional deaths, as vaccines to the virus have begun to be administered, first to frontline health care providers.

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