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Maryland child care providers say they can’t afford to stay open with state restrictions

Glen Burnie child care center struggles under state mandate to limit daycare to children of essential personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Child care providers say current state rules limiting their group sizes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus will force some of them out of business and leave thousands of families without trusted child care.

The gradual lifting of stay-at-home orders to get people back to work can’t be successful, child care advocates say, if the state does not find a solution soon.

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“You can’t go to work without child care. We have to make sure we don’t lose these programs," said Chris Peusch, executive director of the Maryland State Child Care Association. "If you don’t lift the ratios, how are we going to pay our bills?”

In a recent survey of child care providers, more than half said they may close permanently if they aren’t able to serve enough children to maintain a viable business. Two out of three child care businesses say they are losing $1,000 to $5,000 a week during the pandemic, either because they have been closed or are operating with reduced attendance.

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Providers said in the survey they would need ongoing financial support to remain open or reopen.

The survey was completed this week by the Maryland Family Network, which guides families to child care centers and offers technical assistance to providers.

“If half of these programs closed it would amount to a fiscal, domestic, and education crisis unlike any our state has ever seen,” said Laura Weeldreyer, executive director of the Maryland Family Network.

In March, the Maryland Department of Education shut down all centers, then required them to be cleaned and to follow certain procedures to reopen. But they could only take the children of essential workers, such as nurses, doctors and grocery store employees.

Before child care programs were closed, there were 7,800 licensed centers in Maryland serving 170,000 children.

In a statement, the education department said there are 4,000 providers currently operating with space for a total of about 48,000 children, though some spots are not filled.

The first stage of the state’s reopening limits group sizes to 10 or less — including staff — based on recommendations by health experts, the department said. Total child care capacity could increase if more providers seek to reopen or if the second phase of the governor’s recovery plan allows gatherings larger than 10.

“MSDE remains grateful to all of our child care providers, who will continue to play a critical role in the State’s overall unprecedented pandemic recovery efforts," the department said. “These are extraordinary times, but we will get through this together.”

After the shutdown, the state paid the entire cost of tuition for child care for those essential workers, but the centers had to file for reimbursements, a process that they complained was too slow.

Last week, Maryland State School Superintendent Karen Salmon announced those payments would end June 7, but she did not change the cap on the number of people allowed in each classroom. While child care providers say they recognize the need for social distancing and that other businesses also have suffered, they argue they provide a service needed to restart the economy.

Before the pandemic, most child care centers had 20 children in a classroom with two teachers. They say they now are operating with nine children and one teacher, or at about 50% capacity. Some day care facilities have partitions instead of permanent walls between classes and are not allowed to fill all their classrooms.

Ruthi Claytor, owner of Grannie Annie’s child care in Pasadena, furloughed employees that she couldn’t use after March 27 and then took in as many children of essential workers as possible. In normal times, her parents paid her $220 a week. The state paid her $250 a week per child, which allowed her business to remain viable. That funding will go away on June 7, and she no longer will have that cushion.

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“Doing the math, the model we are working under now is not sustainable for me,” Claytor said. She is also upset that the state education department said she cannot raise tuition above what it was before the coronavirus shutdowns two months ago. Other states, she said, have not been as stringent in keeping numbers down and have paid child care providers for their vacant spots rather than subsidizing places for children of essential workers.

Child care workers "don’t make a lot of money. They often have no benefits or minimal health benefits. They have stayed open and they feel they have been largely unrecognized,” said Weeldreyer.

If public schools reopen on a rotating schedule more child care will be needed than usual, she said.

“It would be disingenuous to not recognize that we have an issue. Who is watching the children?” she asked. There aren’t easy answers to the dilemma given the current restrictions, but Weeldreyer believes there needs to be a statewide discussion of how to address it.

The question of who is watching the children is what concerns Paige Stewart, who works for a federal contractor in Queen Anne’s County that is distributing personal protective equipment to nursing homes and the Army.

The mother of five children, including two-year-old twins, Stewart said she and her husband are both working and were able to afford to hire a babysitter to watch their twins. But not all of her fellow employees, some of whom earn minimum wage, are so lucky.

As more businesses are opening up, she said, child care spots are difficult to find. People are resorting to arrangements that they would never have chosen previously, including working overnight shifts or leaving children with 12-year-old cousins to watch.

“It is scary what they are willing to do ... but you got to do what you got to do,” Stewart said.

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