The Maryland State Department of Education announced Thursday that it will allow child care centers to operate at the capacity for which they are licensed, easing restrictions previously meant to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in an effort to support the state’s economic recovery.
Since May, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has gradually lifted capacity restrictions promoting social distancing inside “high-risk locations” such as restaurants, brick-and-mortar retail shops and places of worship. Now, almost all businesses have reopened in some fashion, though most still have restrictions such as capacity limits, face-covering requirements and temperate checks.
The expansion of child care comes as a relief to both providers that operate on tight margins and parents who have struggled to find quality care while public schools continue to operate remotely.
“It’s a game-changer," said Rich Huffman, CEO of the Celebree day care and education program, which runs child care programs for multiple age groups throughout Maryland. “It allows for us to do what we do best, and it allows more parents to go back to work. It’s going to be a huge part of the state’s recovery.”
Child care centers can now have as many as 30 school-aged students in the same room with a ratio of one teacher for every 15 students.
Since July, child care centers have been limited to no more than 15 people per classroom. In March, the state closed child care centers except for the children of essential workers as the pandemic swept into the state.
State schools superintendent Karen B. Salmon said at an Annapolis news conference that more than 82% of licensed child care centers have reopened since March. But they have remained financially hindered due to the shutdown and capacity limits, she said, forcing many parents to turn to unlicensed providers who don’t meet state standards to care for children.
"Hopefully this action will assist in limiting the many unregulated and illegal operators that have sprung up in recent months, " Salmon said. “There are no criminal background checks, no oversight, and parents can not be sure that their children are in a safe environment.”
Maryland Family Network deputy director Steve Rohde said the increased slots made available to families will mean greater protections for children. In the current situation, he said, there are fewer adults to help children wash hands and adhere to other health protocols.
While the extra slots will help some families who are on waiting lists at their day care centers, he said there are many centers that currently have openings.
“Parents are in a real quandary right now in terms of school and child care and their comfort level,” he said. “Getting back to the child care ratios in place before COVID is a good step.”
Some parents with young children had already secured temporary child care services to fill the gaps caused by the state’s restrictions. It’s unclear how many of them will switch back to licensed child care centers and providers.
Christina Williams, a Harford County mom, said she was unable to work for much of this year because she couldn’t find child care she could afford. But several weeks ago, Harford County opened up learning centers in schools where students could come to do their lessons online.
“She is learning amazingly, growing by leaps and bounds,” she said. “If she was in private school I don’t think I could do any better.”
Williams, who works at Aberdeen Proving Ground, said without the learning center, she “would be stuck.”
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Meanwhile, Huffman, of Celebree, said his phone had been consistently ringing off the hook since Hogan and Salmon’s news conference. Before Thursday, Celebree had filled 90% of their slots, he said, and the easing of restrictions means that they can now accept some families with more than one child.
“With this online learning, there’s no substitution," Huffman said. “We’re happy these children are going to be getting back into a routine.”
The state is also providing incentives for child care.
Some parents and guardians who wish to send their children to child care centers but cannot afford the services might qualify for subsidies that go directly to providers, Salmon said Thursday.
Licensed home providers will receive $800 if they reopen, and center-based providers will receive $1,600 for reopening. Grants of $1,000 will go to start-up providers opening for the first time to bolster small business throughout the state, Salmon said.
As more facilities reopened and the student-to-teacher ratio increased, Salmon said the state did not see a significant jump in cases stemming from the centers. State contact tracing data shows some 368 people infected from either schools or child care centers, though it does not offer a further breakdown and does not clarify how many of those cases resulted in fatalities or serious illness.
Both Salmon and Hogan have urged school systems to reopen schoolhouses, even offering $10 million in grants to school systems that chose to bring students back for in-person instruction. All public school systems in the state opted to start the year virtually.