A line of children and parents forms outside of Creative Children’s Center in Myersville each morning as staff and families comply with the new COVID-19 guidelines for child care providers. One by one, parents pull out their thermometers and check the temperature of their children.

Staff, dressed from head to toe in PPE—disposable gowns, face masks, face shields—record each child’s temperature on a running list they keep on a clipboard, as well as take note that the child is not exhibiting any COVID-19 symptoms. Children are then paired with staff members who escort them into the building, either walking with them or, depending on the child’s age, carrying them inside. Parents are no longer permitted in the building.

Practices such as these have become standard at child care centers across the state as they meet changing guidelines for capacity, as well as for social distancing and sanitation, and implement wellness checks among staff and children.

The pandemic has brought challenges for parents, too, many of whom have struggled to find, keep or afford child care services as they face unemployment or a reduction in work hours. Although it has dropped from a high of 9.5% in April, at 6% in August—the most recent month for which data was available—Frederick County’s unemployment rate was twice what it was in March when the pandemic began, according to the Maryland Department of Labor.

Child care continues to be one of the highest cost burdens that families face, according to the United Way of Frederick County’s recent ALICE report. A family with one preschooler and one infant saw average child care costs increase 20% between 2016 and 2018. As Frederick County Public School buildings remain closed for most students, some now need to pay for full-day care for school-aged children.

When the pandemic initially hit and Maryland issued statewide closures of schools and businesses, the landscape of childcare was flipped on its head. State criteria for providers has shifted throughout the past seven months, and providers have shifted with it, meeting every challenge—and, in some cases, going above and beyond.

Creative Children’s Center, for instance, installed a $23,000 ZONO Technologies sanitizing unit, something normally seen inside a hospital. The device sanitizes crayons, markers, books and other items that cannot be effectively cleaned otherwise.

“We take these safety precautions very seriously,” said Brett Bidle, president and owner of Creative Children’s Center, which opened in 1995. “I know a lot of small businesses have had to close their doors. Government loans and grants have been so critical. It’s been really humbling.”

Patty Morison, program director at Mental Health Association of Frederick County’s Child Care Choices, said staff has been working nearly 24/7 to advocate for child care providers since March.

“Child care is essential to our economy and does triple duty for our community,” she said. “With high quality affordable child care, parents can confidently work and provide for their families. Children who attend child care get a better start on brain building and have better readiness skills for kindergarten. And business benefits when working parents know their children are safe and nurtured.”

“Our county has rallied around child care because of how important it is to our community,” explained Morison.

“Profit margins are so thin for child care providers to begin with, so when they’re at decreased capacity and see an increase in expenses, it makes it very difficult,” she said. “Frederick County Jump Start child care grants, issued by the county, went a long way in helping child care providers have that additional funding for enhanced cleaning.”

The grants, issued in late summer, provided $4,100 to qualifying at-home providers, and up to $6,800 to child care centers depending on the number of children they served. She noted that 72% of child care centers were open at the beginning of August in Frederick County, and by the end of the grant program application, 87% of child care centers were open.

“The challenge of the pandemic continues and more help may be needed to keep this essential service to children, families and businesses in place,” said Morison.

Child Care Choices and other organizations in Frederick continue to assist families and providers by connecting them with resources and helping them to navigate the changing regulations of child care during the pandemic. Frederick County’s Interagency Early Childhood Committee, for instance, works to promote healthy development and well-being of children and families through community collaboration. The interagency forum aims to raise awareness of community needs and resources, as well as collect and analyze early childhood data.

Sue Mogard, president of Educare Learning Center in Jefferson, saw her child care center go from 85 children to 21 in two weeks and has relied on grants and loans to stay open.

Mogard, who has been in the childcare field for 40 years, said her primary concern now is distance learning.

“These kids are having emotional meltdowns—at least one a day—so it’s really creating additional challenges,” she said.

Anastasia Pollatos, whose 8-year-old son and 13-month year-old baby go to Creative Children’s Center, works at the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office. She’s considered an essential employee, so she didn’t face a lapse in child care when it became available only to children of essential workers in March. But even parents who are essential workers could find themselves without a child care provider. If their child exhibits any Covid-19 symptoms, even a runny nose—quite common in young children—the child must remain at home until they have a negative Covid-19 test. There is also the possibility the center will have to shut down either partially or fully.

Another hurdle: If one staff member or child at a child care center tests positive for Covid-19, the center may have to shut down partially or entirely for two weeks, and children are not permitted to go to another provider; they have to quarantine at home for 14 days.

This happened at Creative Children’s Center in September. With no advance notice, Pollatos had to take off work for 14 days to care for her two children. Her husband, who is self-employed and works in construction, could not take off work.

Pollatos said she’s grateful, “I have no alternatives. Maybe my 8-year-old could stay with friends, but no one can care for a 13-month-old,” Pollatos said. “I got designated leave—it was created specifically through the county for COVID[-19]—but I have my job to do. And then, I have to learn everything my son’s doing at school. It’s definitely challenging times.”

-This article is sponsored and paid for by Frederick County’s Interagency Early Childhood Committee. It has been approved by the publisher as an article of general interest.

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