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Amid child care crisis aggravated by COVID, money tops wish list for Maryland providers

Avareena Cropper, 44, has cared for her two children, ages 3 and 6, at her Baltimore County home while studying for her doctorate and working full time virtually since the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“There are times where I do feel stressed and anxious because I may have a child yelling in the background, or I feel that I have to apologize for the noise because I have two little children. I still have to [do my work] even feeling that level of anxiety,” said Cropper, who is a public health adviser.

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Avareena Cropper and her children Raquel, 3, and Avery, 6, play in a community park near their home.
Avareena Cropper and her children Raquel, 3, and Avery, 6, play in a community park near their home. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

She and her husband, Rondell, 49, who works in security, are like many other Maryland parents who have their kids at home instead of in child care during the pandemic.

As a result, child care providers across the state have open slots and less money coming in.

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A January survey by the Maryland Family Network, a nonprofit that advocates for child care, showed that about 80% of providers said they’ve experienced a financial loss due to COVID-19. The survey also found that 49% of the state’s child care providers say they may close for good if help doesn’t arrive soon.

“They have capacity [to serve more children] now. But the demand for child care has been extremely low,” said Joan Johnson of the Howard County Child Care Resource Center. “They are open, but the revenue is not there.”

The U.S. could lose half of its licensed child care capacity without government intervention, warns the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning policy institute.

State officials acknowledge the hardships, while saying things are difficult for other businesses as well.

“Child care [providers] are privately run businesses, and have faced challenges similar to other small businesses during the pandemic. Some providers have experienced lower enrollments and increased operating costs,” said Lora Rakowski, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Department of Education, in an email, when asked about the biggest challenges facing the industry right now.

From March 2020 to March 2021, the state said it lost 540 of 7,994 licensed child care providers. While 89% of Maryland’s providers have reopened after early COVID-19 restrictions shut down operations for most, the financial impact is still being felt.

Imani-Angela Rose, the founder, works with Kyree Green, 4 on his art project at Joshua's Place, a Christian care center in the Baltimore area. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Imani-Angela Rose, the founder, works with Kyree Green, 4 on his art project at Joshua's Place, a Christian care center in the Baltimore area. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron)

Imani-Angela Rose, director and co-owner of Joshua’s Place, said the Northwest Baltimore child care center is open but operating at reduced capacity.

“We just have a lot that we need to offset with the low numbers [of children] that we have right now,” Rose said. “There’s those fixed costs to just stay open and run a building and have a healthy, clean, running building.”

Advocates say more help is needed to keep this essential industry operating.

Rakowski said the state already has provided $95 million in grants, scholarships and other initiatives for help with child care during the pandemic, with the majority of the money distributed from April to August.

In addition, Rakowski noted that the state education department funds a child care scholarship program for low-income families, providing $156 million in the last fiscal year.

In February, Gov Larry Hogan, a Republican, announced a $60 million grant program “to support eligible child care programs throughout the state to help meet operating costs and address lost revenue.” The money came to the state through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, relief act.

Rose said she applied for one of the grants, but she is not sure how much she will get.

Rakowski said in a March 19 email that the state will be sending the grant funds to providers in the next six weeks.

And she said additional money is on the way from the latest federal relief bill, the American Rescue Plan Act. That relief package crafted by the Biden administration will provide an estimated $500 million for Maryland child care. Details about how the funds will be distributed to child care providers and families are not known.

State Del. Jared Solomon, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he and others, including Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat representing Baltimore and Howard counties, are talking with the state about how best to use and distribute the federal money once it arrives.

Christina Peusch, executive director of the Maryland State Childcare Association, which promotes child care providers, said new federal money should be distributed as direct funds to child care programs as opposed to as tuition reimbursement.

Peusch said in the past, the state has awarded tuition money to child care providers for children of essential workers, but getting paid only for tuition doesn’t help child care providers enough.

She added that in addition to the state and federal money, financial support for child care should come from other sources. Private and public partnerships would be helpful, she said, such as having local chambers of commerce and businesses invest, whether in on-site child care or helping employees with finding and paying for child care.

Cropper, who is balancing school work and a full-time job, said she would be willing to pay additional taxes to ensure quality child care for others.

“[I’d pay more taxes] to provide a safe environment for a child and for a parent not to have to worry about whether their child is in a safe environment,” Cropper said. “I believe it’s a responsibility for every citizen.”

Help for family child care providers

While advocates say more long-term help is needed across the board for providers and families, Solomon said family child care providers in underserved areas are hurting the most.

Family care providers offer care in their own home to one or more children who aren’t related to the provider.

Solomon has proposed the Growing Opportunities for Family Child Care bill, which has been passed by the House and crossed filed in the Senate. The bill would replicate a program — that’s already established in Montgomery County — in three other jurisdictions across the state, possibly including the Baltimore region.

In Montgomery County, a resource center currently provides professional development and mentorship to those wanting to start a family child care. About 50 new family child care providers have opened, creating about 350 slots for children, Solomon said.

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“Family child care has been one of the particularly hardest hit areas of the pandemic within child care,” Solomon said.

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The proposed legislation, he said, would “create more quality child care centers, which we know often serve kids who are in areas of the highest need.”

If approved and signed into law, the pilot program would be funded by the state, up to $150,000 for each jurisdiction, with the local government matching that amount.

“We’re hoping to get sort of a geographic diversity. We’d like an urban jurisdiction, like Baltimore City. We’d like a suburban jurisdiction, and we’d like a rural community to apply,” Solomon said. “We want to show that this program works everywhere regardless of the makeup of your county. If these three grants are successful, we would like to expand it statewide.”

Jennifer Dorsey, owner and director of A World of Friends School, an early childhood center in Northeast Baltimore, said help is needed now. She’s waiting for money from the state’s $60 million grant program and said, while she’s doing okay financially, others aren’t.

The state “needs to do things quickly,” Dorsey said. “To offer a grant is incredibly wonderful. However, it’s been weeks.”

Editor’s note: The Baltimore Sun and Loyola’s Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice are co-hosting a conversation about child care challenges and solutions in honor of Women’s History Month. The “News and Conversation: Caring for the Kids during COVID”, will be held on Monday, March 29, at 6 p.m. via Zoom. Registration is required. Register at loyola.edu/join-us/karson-institute/upcoming-events

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