Since the pandemic shutdown in mid-May, the loss of jobs, furloughs, tightened household budgets and the closings of child care centers and capacity decreases upon reopening means that parents, already mired in the expensive child care web, suddenly had even fewer options.

With the reopening of some child care centers at full capacity, the industry trying to move forward while building a more sustainable model.

For now, local efforts are being supported by lifelines like grants programs in Howard and Anne Arundel counties as the industry tries to tackle problems that will still be present post-pandemic.

Christina Peusch, executive director of the Annapolis-based Maryland State Child Care Association (MSCCA), said the industry is taking a varied approach to solving its issues.

“[The MSCCA] has been involved with Maryland Together: Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Child Care and continued to request state assistance for the almost 8,000 child care businesses and 150,000 children that need its help,” Peusch said.

By state law, child care can take place in a licensed home business for up to eight children (including the business owner’s own) or at a center, which have varying capacities. The centers were generally limited to 50 percent until late September, though not all counties have decided to offer the opportunity to open at 100 percent at this point.

“Statewide, about 82 percent of child care businesses are open, but often at limited capacity,” Peusch said, “so grants are needed to fill in missing revenue while providers adhere to Centers for Disease Control guidelines.”

Maryland has more child care programs than many larger states and they need to return to their regular revenue streams, as meager as those streams can be, she said, adding, “We’re working with the legislature on getting more grants, as well as conducting advocacy efforts with other groups to learn how we can stabilize services.”

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball knows the importance of the child care industry, calling its availability “an urgent necessity,” especially for essential workers with jobs who can’t telework. “It was imperative to me that we allocate our CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act money toward child care facilities to assist them in staying open and providing this essential service.”

Ball said the county “has funded 247 child care facilities with $2,500 grants each and we hope to provide another round. These monies assist the child care centers in covering costs for business expenses such as rent and utilities, as well as increased needs for Personal Protective Equipment, cleaning and supplies to ensure the safety” of all concerned.

Ball “got in front of the child care issue early,” with the first round of assistance issued in August and September, said Larry Twele, CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA). “We’re working on getting more money shortly via the CARES Act.”

Twele said the HCEDA streamlined the application process, which resulted in “faster turnaround of the funds to the businesses. Those that were impacted most were those that had to close and/or had limited capacity.

“While $2,500 might not solve everyone’s problems, it helps,” he said. “When we saw that the first-come, first-served approach was causing issues in other [relief programs], such as unemployment, we took the targeted approach. Any business could apply for the grants and we tried to decipher which businesses needed assistance the most.”

Child care was in a crisis before COVID-19, “for many reasons,” said Erin Bonzon, administrator for Howard County Department of Community Resources and Services’ Office of Children and Families, with “low pay and the lack of qualified workforce” not the least among them.

“For instance, workers can get a job at Target that pays more at $15 per hour and have less responsibility,” she said. “That’s a huge problem.”

To illustrate the issue from the consumer’s side, Bonzon said “the average annual cost of child care for an infant and a preschooler in Howard County is twice the cost of in-state tuition at the University of Maryland College Park: the cost of having two children cared for is about $23,000 per year.”  

In Anne Arundel, the county is about a month into its recently announced Childcare Providers Support Grant program. At press time, the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. (AAEDC) had approved 169 applications and have committed about two-thirds of its $3 million that was channeled from the CARES Act.

The overall average grant amount is $11,346, with the average grant for at-home providers at about $3,500, with about $24,000 for child care centers. “We have funds available for all child care centers that apply,” said Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman who, like Twele, knows these grants are more about keeping businesses going than solving long-term issues.

“We’re just using our grants to keep the businesses afloat,” Pittman said. “Many parents are working from home, but when we get though the pandemic, many will be back in the office and the demand for child care will return to pre-pandemic levels. We don’t like seeing any businesses fail, but understand that if child care concerns do, that has big repercussions throughout the economy.”

Bozman also stressed in importance of child care to the economic recovery. “My long-term hope is that this situation is shining a light on how essential child care is,” she said. “If we don’t do something to elevate the profession, there could be dire conquests for future generations.”

Peusch continued. “Child care is a public good, but there’s no public money for the industry and it’s hard to get funding,” she said. “Just a few years ago Maryland was at the bottom of the barrel for child care subsidies, which is really sad. But we’ve risen from the ninth percentile in 2017 to the 45th percentile; we’re looking to get to the 60th percentile.”

While pivoting has served some industries well during the pandemic to the point that they may meld some new approaches into the post-pandemic marketing approach, it doesn’t work that way in the child care industry.

“We don’t have the ability to work remotely or offer carry-out service. Our workers have to be on site,” said Peusch, “and we’re losing a great deal of money.”

By Mark Smith | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | November 2020 Issue