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Day-care workers and centers get 'A's' on Sept. 11 report cards

Saturday, September 29, 2001

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When terrorists attacked the north and south towers of World Trade Center on Sept. 11, children at a daycare facility in the No. 5 building were evacuated quickly and safely.

As panicked people surged past, teachers of the Children's Discovery Center -- some of them barefoot because they had left their shoes in the infant room -- shepherded all 28 children to secure locations blocks away.

It was a similar story at the Children's World Learning Center at the Pentagon. Located in a separate building 30 yards away, the center's teachers sang nursery rhymes to their 138 young charges as they led them to safety after a hijacked plane crashed into the side of U.S. military headquarters.

Not quite 300 hundred miles away, staffers at the Wee the People Day Care Center at the Moorhead Federal Building in Pittsburgh also moved quickly that morning when they were ordered to evacuate because a terrorist-controlled plane appeared to be heading for the city.

By 10 a.m. -- 10 minutes before the plane crashed into a field 80 miles from Pittsburgh -- all 45 children had been moved, and most had been reunited with their parents

Child care experts say these stories show the courage and professionalism of staffers at workplace child care centers and the value of having a well-trained staff that can immediately implement an emergency evacuation plan.

Some parents are reassessing the wisdom of keeping their children in day-care centers inside federal buildings and other potential targets after the Sept. 11 attacks. But many professionals laud the safety of workplace-based centers.

Workplace centers are usually sponsored by businesses, who insist on a well-financed, high-quality operation with well-trained teachers because their name is on the door, experts say. Many such centers are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which puts strong emphasis on safety, including frequent emergency drills.

"Those brave and well-trained caregivers in New York and Washington got those children out safely. That's what you want, and that's what you can expect in a high-quality, employer-supported center," said Faith Wohl, president of the New York-based Child Care Action Campaign. "The folks who work in these centers are better-paid and better-trained [than in many non-employer-sponsored centers]."

Each workday, more than 3 million American children attend child care centers, many of them in workplaces, government buildings or military facilities. Federal buildings house 241 centers with 16,000 children. The U.S. Department of Defense operates another 800 in this country and at military bases around the world, serving 107,529 children.

Parents with children in federal or military installation facilities can take added comfort from built-in security at those locations, Penn State University family development professor James Van Horn said. Security was beefed up in many federal buildings after the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing, which killed children in its care center. Windows are now shatterproof, for instance.

Still, recent reports have highlighted continuing security flaws in federal buildings. Federal officials say they're working on the problems while trying to keep the buildings as open to the public as possible.

"No one can say for certain what is safe," said Van Horn, who has studied workplace-based child care. "But I would think that the heightened security at these buildings, particularly now, should be reassuring to parents."

Patricia Myers, head of the New York State Association for the Education of Young Children,said, "Parents are questioning everything to ensure the safety of their children." Nonetheless, there "just aren't that many quality [child care] spots out there," she said, meaning many parents have little choice about where they place their kids.

She noted that parents who enrolled children at workplace centers near the Sept. 11 attack sites were glad they could get to them so quickly that morning. "Being able to get to your children quickly in a crisis is important," Myers added.

Many parents are haunted, however, by the deaths of children at the Oklahoma City day-care center. Wohl understands that concern because, at the time, she was head of the U.S. agency responsible for that center.

"After [the] Oklahoma City [bombing], we had a temporary dip in enrollment," Wohl said. "After a while, though, enrollment began going back up. I maintained then, and I still maintain, that a child can be a target anywhere, unfortunately. In that case, you tell me what's safer than a federal building."

G.G. Weisenfeld, co-president of the New York City Association for the Education of Young Children, said teacher training clearly paid off at the World Trade Center daycare facility and nine others in its vicinity.

"They were very prepared and knew they had to get the children out. In some cases, they really had to improvise because the places they normally would evacuate to were also unsafe," Weisenfeld said.

Of course, the emotional trauma has taken a toll on the child care providers, who worked so hard to keep themselves calm for their students. "Many people are just stuffing their feelings," Myers said. "We need to take a step back and talk about this."

At the Pentagon day-care center, teachers are being offered counseling. In New York City, the National Association for the Education of Young Children is sponsoring group discussions with mental health specialists.

Child care providers should be considered among the "rescuers," along with firefighters and police, in emergency situations, said Adele Robinson, the association's director of public policy.

"The people really close to the families affected by this tragedy are the child care providers," Robinson said. "They are the ones working with traumatized families and children. We need to recognize them as the rescuers they are."

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