On a recent sweaty afternoon, not 50 yards from where U.S. 340 spills onto Jefferson Pike, a group of giggly girls danced around Educare Learning Center’s grassy playground, singing silly songs and throwing their arms around each other.
Sue Mogard, the center’s owner, leaned against a wooden fence nearby, watching the children play. She had tears in her eyes.
When Mogard was 18, she had considered becoming a mathematician. Instead, she studied early childhood and elementary education in college, later earning a master’s degree in human development and family studies. Now 67, she has devoted her career to professionalizing a field that is tasked with caring for children at the most vital period of their development.
Mogard knows how important the child care industry is to the health of a community. But after the past year and a half, she doesn’t think it will survive.
“I know it’s tough to hear, but I think child care has gone beyond its ability to regroup.” she said. “Until people don’t have child care, they really don’t see us as a viable business. Or at least, we’re not treated as such.”
Running a child care business is hard on a good day. Though costs can weigh on a family’s budget — the average annual child care tuition for two children was nearly $25,000 in Maryland in 2019 — profit margins for centers are razor thin. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average daycare operator in 2020 grossed just $48,000 per year, and the average daycare worker made around $24,000.
The pandemic took existing challenges for these businesses and turned up the volume. In March of last year, Maryland ordered child care centers to close as the coronavirus ripped across the state. Though the state allowed licensed programs to apply to re-open to serve the children of essential personnel, providers saw their enrollment numbers plunge within a matter of days. The ones that remained open had to shell out thousands of dollars for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.
In July of last year, 18 percent of child care centers and 9 percent of family child care homes remained closed, a survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found. Two of five centers that participated in the survey — and half of those that were minority-owned — said they were certain they would have to close permanently if additional help didn’t arrive.
By that point, Congress had already passed the CARES Act, which included $3.5 billion in assistance for child care providers and essential workers who needed child care, as well as millions in small business loans. Congress would later create the Paycheck Protection Program and pass the American Recovery Act Plan, which included an additional $15 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant and $24 billion for a pandemic child care relief and stabilization fund — an unprecedented infusion of money into the industry.
A year later, 99 percent of licensed child care providers in Frederick County — and 95 percent of licensed providers in the state — have re-opened, according to July data from Maryland’s education department.
But the struggles persist. Even if their enrollment numbers are back to pre-pandemic levels, they’re facing dire staffing shortages and scrambling to make up for the heightened costs brought about by the previous year and a half.
At Educare Learning Center in Jefferson, Mogard and her daughter, Kim Mogard — who serves as executive director — are exhausted. Demoralized, too. And they’re tired of telling their story when it feels like nobody is listening.
“Just because we’re open doesn’t mean we’re OK,” Kim Mogard said.
Staffing squeezeRecently, Bambi Blackwell gave a tour of the preschool she runs out of Brook Hill United Methodist Church in Frederick to two parents and their 2-year-old child. Although she’s been in the child care field for 30 years, she was so excited she had butterflies in her stomach.
“I realized how much I missed it — how much I desperately need to be doing what I’m trained to do and what I love to do,” she said. “I went home and I was just gushing to my husband about what a great day I had because I actually got to see kids and I actually got to see parents and I got to do my career again.”
This fall, after being closed since March of last year, Brook Hill Weekday Preschool is finally reopening. But even though Blackwell said she has a waitlist that’s about 25-deep and gets calls and emails every day from parents looking for child care, the preschool will only be teaching about 30 kids this year — a steep drop-off from the 70 it enrolled before the pandemic.
The school needs to have lower class sizes because of social distancing requirements and coronavirus-specific capacity restrictions. But it is also re-opening with only three classes, compared to the five it used to have, mainly because it doesn’t have enough teachers, Blackwell said. During the pandemic, she went from 15 staff members to nine.
Blackwell started advertising the open positions in January, but she didn’t get any takers, she said. It’s frustrating, but part of her also understands. When you’re working with young children, you know you’re going to get sick a couple of times per year, she said. Before the pandemic, there was strep throat, chickenpox and colds. But with the circulation of a deadly virus, it can be scary working in an environment where there are so many germs — especially for those with pre-existing health issues, she said.
“Some teachers have just decided to leave the field at this point, which is tragic. It’s just tragic,” Blackwell said. “I don’t blame them, but it’s tragic.”
Patty Morison is well aware of the staffing issues child care providers in Frederick County are facing. As the director of Child Care Choices, a program under Frederick’s Mental Health Association that provides resources and support to families and early childhood educators, she’s been hearing from centers that have been desperately trying to attract new staff members for months. One provider told her they had spent $700 to advertise open positions on Indeed.com.
There are numerous reasons why providers have been having difficulty with hiring, Morison said. For one, even the most experienced educators are burned out from more than a year of virtual learning. Lately, the most popular webinars requested by child care businesses from Morison’s organization have been those that provide guidance on how to lower stress levels among staff members.
Additionally, some centers had to lay off people when they closed at the start of the pandemic. During that time, Morison said, some staff members were able to make more money off of unemployment benefits than they typically did working as a child care provider. Considering the low wages child care workers receive — and the credentials and qualifications they need to work in the field — some providers may be wondering if staying in the industry is worth it, Morison said, especially because so many other sectors are scrambling to hire right now.
Lately, some child care businesses have been offering hiring bonuses and “things they really can’t afford,” Morison said. “They’re desperate to get the staff because without the staff, they’re not going to get the revenue because they can’t have the capacity.”
For now, Blackwell has put a pin in hiring. With the start of the school year rapidly approaching, there’s just too much else to worry about. She plans to start looking again at the start of next year for staff members to join the preschool in the fall.
After a year of worrying that she would have to close her program, Blackwell feels grateful Brook Hill Weekday Preschool is still afloat. Her classrooms are filled with furniture from child care centers and preschools in Frederick and Montgomery counties that haven’t been so lucky.
“We have children enrolled, we have three classes that we’re gonna start. The teachers and I are very excited to get back,” she said. “We’re just really hopeful for this new coming year.”
‘I wish I had a crystal ball’Susan Custer also had to temporarily close her child care center when the pandemic hit.
Last year, marked the 20th anniversary of Child Care Cottage, which Custer runs out of her home in the city of Frederick, though it was shuttered from March through August.
She’s been open for a year now, but her business is still coping with the pandemic’s fallout. The center’s revenue is tens of thousands of dollars below where it was two years ago, and Custer is still paying roughly twice what she used to for personal protective equipment. Rounds of government assistance lessened the outbreak’s financial toll, but Custer has yet to bump her salary to its pre-pandemic level, and she’s been unable to offer her lead teacher her usual annual raise.
Now, it’s the unknown of what’s to come that worries Custer the most. Fall and winter will more than likely bring about flu season, and the highly contagious delta variant has ushered in a new chapter of the pandemic. Even if just one parent tests positive for the virus, Custer’s entire operation would be forced to shut down for two weeks, resulting in either Custer losing revenue or families paying for services they aren’t receiving.
“I wish I had a crystal ball,” Custer said. “The fear of a shutdown is always in your head after you’ve been shut down once.”
But one thing is certain for child care providers and their advocates: The future of the industry is on the line. The recent infusion of federal dollars into child care needs to be looked at as the start of a long-term investment into the prosperity of the field, Morison said. That way, if another pandemic happens, the industry won’t be on the verge of collapse.
When child care stops working, Morison continued, families can’t go to work, they can’t pursue higher education opportunities and, ultimately, the state loses out on economic opportunities.
“Here we are, looking at unprecedented funds pouring into child care,” she said, “but it needs to not be a one-time thing.”
While it’s great having “pots of money” thrown at the industry, what it really needs is a stable workforce, Kim Mogard said. Child care need to be subsidized at a level where the industry can pay a salary that is competitive with what local schools are offering.
For months after the pandemic hit, Educare Learning Center was able to retain all of its staff members. Then, one left in April. Four more followed suit. Now, the center employs 25 staff members to care for about 90 children. Kim and her mom wish they had three more.
But they are grateful for their staff who have stayed. On Monday, about a dozen squirming children lined up in front of one teacher who held a spray bottle. She sprayed each child one by one, laughing as they spun around, lifting up their sweaty hair for her to douse their necks.
Though they stood only about 30 yards away, the Mogards seemed to be in a different world. Their brows furrowed with worry, they counted off the challenges they’ve faced in the last year — and wondered about the ones still to come.
“I keep saying we’re in quicksand,” Kim said. “You can keep filling the hole, but it’s just going to keep going.”