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‘Like putting together a puzzle every day’: Families face child care dilemma, threatening Maryland’s economic recovery

Chris Baldelli of Lutherville checks the temperature of his 4 year old son Alex Baldelli as his other son Theo walks by behind them. Celebree School director Sapphire Jackson holds the door open from the lobby at the center in Lutherville. Parents use their own thermometers to check temperatures, which are then recorded by the school. July 29, 2020
Chris Baldelli of Lutherville checks the temperature of his 4 year old son Alex Baldelli as his other son Theo walks by behind them. Celebree School director Sapphire Jackson holds the door open from the lobby at the center in Lutherville. Parents use their own thermometers to check temperatures, which are then recorded by the school. July 29, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

For months, exhausted families have struggled to meet the demands of parenting and working without child care.

Now, with day care centers operating at reduced capacity and the news that Baltimore-area public schools will teach online as the school year begins, it’s clear the child care conundrum isn’t going away — and that threatens the state’s recovery from the economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, many observers say.

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Families are wondering what they’ll do with school-age children this fall. And business leaders, family advocates and some elected officials are calling for the state to confront the child care problem, saying the economy can’t move forward without this critical service.

“As people return to work more and more, they are going to have an issue” with child care, said Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat representing Baltimore and Howard counties who chairs an early-childhood subcommittee in the House of Delegates. “Somehow we have to come to grips with how we’re going to care for [children] during the day.”

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Uneven access to affordable, quality child care was a problem before the pandemic. But the virus poses new hurdles, with new class-size limits and social-distancing and sanitation regulations adding costs for providers who already operated on thin margins.

Nolan Love, 5, and his dad Brad Love, of Timonium, use hand sanitizers in the lobby at dropoff time at Celebree School in Lutherville.
Nolan Love, 5, and his dad Brad Love, of Timonium, use hand sanitizers in the lobby at dropoff time at Celebree School in Lutherville. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland day care programs have reopened with new daily rituals like temperature checks at the door and constant cleaning. To prevent spread of the virus, group sizes are currently limited to 15 people — up from a 10-person cap set earlier in the pandemic, but still lower than previous regulations that allowed at least 20 children per group for certain ages.

Child care providers in Maryland and across the nation have been sounding alarm bells for months that their industry is at risk of collapse. A survey by the Maryland Family Network, released in June, found that 67% of providers in the state have experienced financial losses because of closures and reduced attendance. And about half said an extended closure would mean they have to close permanently.

State officials say more than 5,600 licensed child care providers are operating across Maryland, roughly 72% of the number in business before the pandemic. The Maryland State Department of Education says it is expediting orientations and applications those who want to open a program before school starts.

But Christina Peusch, who heads the Maryland State Child Care Association, said three-quarters of providers that have reopened are home-based programs whose capacity is a fraction of what centers can provide.

The association launched a campaign called Save Maryland Child Care to build public support for government aid to the industry.

“We’re waiting for the feds, we’re waiting for the state, we’re waiting for our counties to say, ‘Child care is important,‘ ” Peusch said.

Business groups including the Maryland Chamber of Commerce support the effort.

“Access to child care is, from our perspective, a foundational pillar of our economy and really an absolute necessity for employees as we ask them to return to work,” said Ashley Duckman, a chamber vice president.

Duckman said the chamber is awaiting survey results from its members about the pandemic, including how employees’ access to child care is playing into business decisions.

Karen Glenn Hood, a spokeswoman for Maryland Department of Commerce, said the agency has heard from businesses that are trying to accommodate workers with flexible hours, telework and even allowing children in the workplace.

But for many parents, making sure the kids are properly supervised can feel like a logistical nightmare.

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“Every day, there’s a new crisis — it’s like putting together a puzzle every day,” said Corin Kunicky, a physical therapist in Baltimore County who can’t work at home. “I don’t want to go through that during the school year. Summer is one thing, because as long as you have someone watching them and they’re safe, it’s OK. But the school year is more serious.”

Kunicky and her husband, Kris, a physician assistant, have two children, Noah, a rising fifth grader, and Maya, a rising third grader.

Kunicky has looked for local learning centers, babysitters and even for school “pods” in her neighborhood where families pool funds and split a tutor or caregiver. She must weigh the expenses as well as the risks to her children, who have not been infected with the coronavirus even though she and her husband both contracted it.

This summer proved challenging for the family, as many day camps run for just a few hours each day or have switched to virtual settings, she said, meaning she must alternate between paying for programs, finding babysitters and arranging transportation.

Kunicky expects to spend close to $8,000 on care and virtual learning assistance by January, an expense she and her husband did not foresee. They also don’t have family in the area.

Many child care and early-education providers are on edge about the future of their businesses. Kenda Watson, owner of the Watson Hall Montessori school in Catonsville, which serves children 2 and up, will keep the building closed during the fall. She said families have disagreed with her choice, but she felt she didn’t get enough guidance from the state to reopen safely.

At full capacity, the school can accommodate about 70. Watson Hall is now running an online day camp that serves about six children. She has not collected a salary from her business in weeks, and says the state owes her about $2,000 in reimbursement fees. Her school and child care center is approaching its 10th year in business, but she says she could lose it all in just a few weeks’ time.

“I’m extremely nervous, and just praying that people will want to pay and keep our small business alive,” she said.

Delegate Ebersole and three other Democratic state legislators recently penned a Washington Post op-ed calling upon Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to allocate funds to support the child care sector, saying the state’s response has been “inadequate.” They pointed to child care aid programs in Vermont and Michigan, as well as New York City’s plans to provide free care for 100,000 students this fall.

“I think from the governor we could use much more support,” Ebersole said in an interview.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci noted that the state has provided more than $90 million in emergency support of child care programs during the pandemic, much of it paying to care for the children of essential workers.

“How much more we’re able to do for child care — and for a number of top priorities — depends in part on future federal aid, which is currently bogged down in Congress,” Ricci said in an email.

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Some Maryland providers say the state also could help by easing class size restrictions, allowing them to serve more families.

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“Some of this can be resolved if we go back to our original licensed capacity,” said Richard Huffman, CEO of Celebree School. “Besides parents not being able to return to work because they have nowhere to put their pre-school children, now they have nowhere to put their school-age children. It’s just become a bigger problem.”

Jaxson Wice, 3 of Baltimore, is happy as he arrives at Celebree School in Lutherville.
Jaxson Wice, 3 of Baltimore, is happy as he arrives at Celebree School in Lutherville. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Michael Serio, executive director at Active Minds Learning, says his day camp and before- and after-school program could help dozens of families this fall if the state expedites its licensing processes.

This summer, his day camp had a license for one room in Perry Hall, one in Bel Air and another in Lutherville to serve 14 kids in each. But rooms take months to license, and even if buildings have the space, Active Minds Learning cannot expand fast enough to meet the demand, Serio said. He hopes to have the day camp license extended into the fall, another step that would require state intervention.

AliceAnne Loftus, owner of Bright Beginnings Children’s Learning Centers in Glen Burnie and Crownsville, said she has had to turn families away seeking care for their school-age kids.

Loftus said at least three of her friends who run child care centers have gone out of business. She expects parents will turn to unlicensed providers for help, which could pose a risk to children’s health and safety.

Loftus’ center hired a biohazard cleaning company to do a full sweep at the end of each day and has invested in personal protective equipment, thermometers and other sanitation supplies, shrinking her margins even further.

“Every time I turn a family away, I think, ‘Oh God, what are they going to do?’ ” she said. “This is going to take so many of our women way back in terms of all the strides we’ve made in the workplace, because there’s still that responsibility to be the primary caregiver.”

When women are forced out of the workforce because they lack child care, “that’s bad for businesses, that’s bad for families and it’s bad for communities,” said Melissa Boteach, a vice president at the National Women’s Law Center.

The center supports federal legislation to create a $50 billion fund to stabilize the child care industry in the pandemic, but Boteach argues that “we can’t end there.” She points to low wages for child care workers — most of whom are female and disproportionately women of color — and the fact that affordable care was already out of reach for many families.

“The pre-pandemic status quo was never acceptable when it came to child care,” Boteach said. “There needs to be a shift toward understanding child care as a public good.”

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