Wonders Early Learning at Edgemoor in Bethesda used to care for about 75 infants and toddlers every day, before the child care center was closed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As the center ended its first week back open on Friday, parents had dropped off only eight kids.
Some parents have asked Program Director Miciel DeMarco if their slots will still be reserved if they don’t return with their kids until the fall.
“They’re waiting a bit or they’ve decided that it’s just not safe right now,” DeMarco said.
Many Montgomery County parents are returning to work, yet some have been hesitant to resume dropping off their children at day care and learning centers, according to interviews with child care center managers and owners, as well as a survey of providers conducted by a family services organization.
The pandemic has dealt the child care industry a financial blow.
“The next … national disaster here is going to be [that] parents want to go back to work and not having preschools to go back to,” said Michael Pesi, owner of The Goddard School of Bethesda, a preschool and day care provider.
A survey in May by the Maryland Family Network, an organization that promotes child care through free resources for parents at its Family Support Centers, asked respondents about changes they experienced after signing up for a state program to provide child care for essential workers.
More than two-thirds of respondents said they experienced a financial loss because of the coronavirus pandemic. The average monthly loss for family child care programs was more than $4,000. The average monthly loss was more than $56,000 for child care centers.
According to the state, family child care programs can care for up to 12 children and often operate out of residences. Child care centers can have many more kids, depending on the square footage of the facility.
The Maryland Family Network said 41.6% of “all regulated sites in Maryland” responded.
In Maryland, the pandemic has meant turmoil for child care centers, beginning with a snap decision they had to make in late March.
As coronavirus cases were popping up in increasing numbers, state schools Superintendent Karen Salmon ordered most licensed child care centers to close, adding them to the vast swath of businesses temporarily shuttered three days earlier.
“It was, I don’t want to say, catastrophic. It was a shock,” Pesi said.
Licensed child care providers could stay open if they applied to a new “Essential Personnel Child Care” program paid for by the state. Applying meant providers could earn at least some revenue as they cared for the children of critical workers, like firefighters and medical personnel.
But that also meant providers would risk participating in the spread of COVID-19.
The Goddard School of Bethesda was one of hundreds of centers in Montgomery County that applied to be an EPCC provider, according to Maryland State Department of Education data.
Pesi said he made that decision immediately — some of the parents who use Goddard are on the frontlines on the efforts to create a coronavirus vaccine. Others are doctors and nurses, he said.
But that choice resulted in “a big hit financially,” Pesi said.
Maryland paid less per-student under the EPCC program than what Goddard normally charged. The state paid $250 or $350 per week, per child, depending on the child’s age. Pesi said that represented a 40% to 50% cut from Goddard’s normal tuition. And those state payments sometimes came slowly, he said.
Pesi said his center was still awaiting late payments as of mid-June. He added that he thought “the state tried to do a good thing” with the EPCC program, but was probably overwhelmed by ensuing demand.
That echoes concerns from child care providers going back to the early weeks of the EPCC program. Child care centers complained of problems with late payments by the state, Maryland Matters reported in April.
In a statement last week, MSDE spokeswoman Lora Rakowski said that “nearly all invoices have been paid” and the state is working with providers to resolve remaining issues.
Rakowski said Maryland had paid out almost $90 million through the EPCC and a related program. About 4,000 child care providers submitted invoices to the state, she said.
Over 60% of Maryland’s licensed child care facilities have reopened, Rakowski said in a phone interview on Monday.
“MSDE is very grateful to the service of our child care providers who continue to play a critical role in the state’s overall pandemic recovery efforts,” she said.
Pesi said that adding to the financial woes was the fact that enrollment was far lower than what it was pre-pandemic — only the parents of about 35 out of more than 170 children qualified as essential workers, he said.
“You do the math on that,” he said.
The Goddard School was in a good enough position financially that Pesi said he made the decision after reopening to not furlough any teachers and pay full benefits.
But many child care centers did not reopen for months. Nearly one third of Maryland child care centers were closed in May among respondents to a survey by the Maryland Family Network.
The dynamics changed with Montgomery County’s decision to begin phase 2 of the reopening process. Since June 19, child care programs have been allowed to accommodate 15 individuals, up from 10. All parents — not just essential workers — can now drop children off at centers.
Leah Hanlon owns two in-home child care locations in Bethesda that have remained open the past few months. She also co-owns the Lily Pads Early Learning Center, also in Bethesda, which is due to reopen Wednesday.
The past few months have been an exercise in making decisions with almost nothing to go on, she said. At the two in-home facilities, Hanlon said, she decided to be flexible with payments for parents who might have been struggling economically, even as the rent for the learning center still came due and what at the time was no reopening in sight.
“I have [run] many businesses for a long time and this is probably the most stressful thing I’ve ever experienced by far,” Hanlon said.
Hanlon expressed relief that the learning center would reopen soon.
She said her child care center was well equipped to deal with some aspects of the pandemic. Dealing with kids on a day-to-day basis meant that practices like washing hands were already well-established routines.
There are new routines, too.
There are temperature checks, health surveys for parents and contactless sign-in sheets that parents can access via QR code, which can be scanned on a smartphone.
Hanlon said she has taken multiple steps to reduce the number of people who come into contact with children, including not allowing parents to tour the inside of the building, even if it turns away parents who want a close look at the whole facility before deciding on a provider.
“I need to do right by the parents that are enrolled in my program right now,” Hanlon said.
Christina Peusch, executive director of Maryland State Child Care Association, citing the Maryland Family Network survey, was heartened to see that many child care centers are reopening. She credited Montgomery County in particular for setting up $10 million in grants to help them reopen.
Child care sites can receive up to $75,000. The process for child care providers in the county to apply began Monday at 3 p.m.
But, Peusch said, providers still need support, especially those operating despite only a trickle of parents coming back.
“We’re very concerned that even though they’re open, that doesn’t mean they’re going to stay open,” she said.