After months of advocacy from parents and former teachers, the Children's Center at Frederick Community College (FCC) will remain closed for the foreseeable future.
Parents have been fighting for the center to reopen since last summer but have seen little success despite the formation of a parent advisory council to present solutions to college leadership.
FCC announced last July that the center would remain closed until at least January, but in October that date was scrapped and families were told the center would not reopen until the college entered Stage Four of its reopening plan. Stage Four was described as the college returning to pre-COVID operations by Caroline Cole, communications coordinator for FCC, in an email.
The Children’s Center operates on the campus of FCC as an auxiliary enterprise and provides childcare and early education programs to children of students, staff and community members. It initially shut down in March due to directives from the state related to the pandemic. At that time there were 77 children enrolled.
Jessica Lertora has a 1-year-old daughter who used to attend the Children’s Center daily. She has been leading the parents' fight to reopen. Lertora was initially pleased when FCC decided to form a parent advisory council, but after three meetings, she feels a solution won't be found.
Lertora claims FCC administration and Board of Trustees members were absent from most meetings and that there was a lack of communication from the college as they worked to come up with solutions to reopen the center.
Cole, however, noted the college's vice president of finance was present "for part of the parent advisory council meetings."
"None of the scenarios [presented by the council] were considered safe or possible given the escalation in the past two months of transmission of the virus," Cole added. "The highest priority of FCC is to be able to reopen the Children’s Center in Stage Four, as well as all operations and services of the college when it is safe and possible to do so."
One of the biggest reasons the reopening of the center was placed in the last stage of the college's reopening plan seems to be related to liability.
"We would have to pay custodial staff and security staff, so a lot of it is really based on that and, of course, safety," said John Molesworth, chairman of FCC's Board of Trustees. “We really made a good faith effort exploring the feasibility of reopening the children’s center in January ... we carefully deliberated, and we just felt it wasn’t feasible to reopen.”
The YMCA is currently leasing the Children's Center space and using it for its programming, and Molewsworth said the organization leases its own custodial staff and has its own insurance, keeping any liability off of the college. The college is also not profiting from the lease, according to Molesworth.
But Letora and other parents feel dismissed by the college. Amanda Elliot, whose 2-year-old daughter had been enrolled at the center, said she feels like the college cast parents aside instead of doing the work to figure out a way to reopen.
"I was really disappointed because I knew other centers were open, so I didn't understand why they couldn't make the changes that were necessary to function as a center again," she said. "There just wasn't any clear communication about a definite plan or even what they were doing to try to reopen."
Other daycare centers around the state have been reopened. When asked why the college didn't follow in a similar direction, Cole said FCC is focused on delivering credit and non-credit programs to students at this time.
After keeping her daughter at home for most of last year, Elliott decided to give up on the center and enroll her daughter in an early childhood program at Hood College.
"And I thought if Hood can do this, why can't FCC?" she said.
For now, parents and teachers seem to have rested their case, disheartened by what they see as a lack of collaboration from the college over the past year. Letora feels The Children's Center seemed to consistently rank at the bottom of FCC's priority list. She hopes the college's leadership will use the experience as a chance to learn and better connect with the community in the future.
"At the end of the day, FCC is a business, and they have to stay afloat, but you could have had a huge impact on helping your community through a situation that has devastated a lot of families and, most importantly, the children," Lertora said. "But at the end of the day, our families are going to be stronger and our teachers are going to be stronger because they’ve been through a situation that they will never hopefully have to be in again.”
The YMCA is set to end its lease with FCC at the end of March. Cole said given the current status of COVID-19 in the county, it is unlikely FCC will enter Stage Four of its reopening plan by then, therefore the lease may be extended.