Maryland child care providers are pleading with elected officials to loosen COVID-19 safety rules and provide additional financial support. Without those changes, providers warned state lawmakers on Thursday that many will have to permanently close their doors in a matter of months.
During a briefing Thursday with the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families, child care providers criticized a rule that requires them to close entire classrooms when a child, parent or staff member experiences any flu-like symptoms.
Carolina Reyes, owner and director of the Arco Iris Bilingual Children’s Center in Laurel, said the closures — sometimes for something as small as a runny nose or a cough — can last days while she waits for COVID-19 test results.
“I have reported three possible cases in October,” Reyes said. “All of the results returned negative.”
While her center is closed, she said, she still has to charge families tuition. She can’t afford not to.
“For how much longer can I continue doing this before families abandon child care completely?” Reyes asked. “I lost two families because I closed my center. They brought a family member from another country to take care of their child because they're small business owners as well.”
She said she worries that as the weather gets colder, illnesses such as colds and strep throat will become more common and the closures more frequent.
Reyes said she can’t afford to lose any more students. Before the pandemic, she had 56 children enrolled. Now, she’s down to 17.
Without state help, Reyes said, she could be closed by January.
“I am in the negative right now — running in a negative,” she said. “I have to pay rent, I have to pay the two teachers and myself that I have here.”
Reyes suggested the state create a fund to cover lost tuition when a child care provider needs to close due to a possible COVID-19 case. Families could then put their saved tuition toward the cost of a babysitter while the center is closed.
Christina Peusch, executive director of the Maryland State Childcare Association, pushed for another change: Require the child, parent or staff member with symptoms to isolate pending test results, but allow the affected classroom to stay open.
“I am not aware of any other industry that closes portions or all of their business without a confirmed case, only a symptom,” Peusch said. “The vast majority of tests, which cannot be rapid tests, come back negative, which has frustrated all parties involved.”
For The Children in the Shoe, a child care provider in Montgomery County, county capacity limits are creating a financial strain, said executive director Diane Heintz. Before the pandemic, The Children in the Shoe enrolled more than 500 children across four locations in Montgomery County, and Heintz was considering opening a fifth. Now they are operating at 65% capacity.
“We are on the brink of losing it all,” Heintz said.
She said her mother-in-law founded the business 40 years ago.
“We have always been a business that puts everything back into it for our families and our staff. They mean everything to us,” she said.
The center has exhausted its financial reserves and its PPP loan, Heintz said. She pleaded with lawmakers to help her return to full capacity, which she said the center would be able to do safely.
She contrasted the safety precautions in place at her centers to those at restaurants — no temperature checks, no masks required at tables, and much higher capacity allowances.
“We do temperature checks three times a day. We send children home with runny noses,” Heintz said.
She said it would also be helpful to have access to rapid tests, so that the center would not have to close a classroom for days while waiting on test results.
Lawmakers expressed support for the rapid test idea. They also said they would work with the state Department of Commerce to see if there are existing funds available to help child care providers.