(Feb. 19, 2021) While restaurants are perhaps the most well-known victims of pandemic-related restrictions and closures, a lesser known service is having its troubles as well, and is why local childcare centers are hailing the opening of the Child Care Relief Fund announced by Gov. Larry Hogan last Friday.

temp check

Teacher Sophia Ager takes a student's temperature as she enters Coastal Early Learning Center on Seahawk Road in Berlin in the morning along with a covid-19 questionnaire as part of the facility’s safety protocols during the covid-19 pandemic.

Through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, Maryland received additional federal funding to support childcare for children and families. The Maryland State Department of Education is establishing a $60 million grant program to support eligible childcare programs statewide.

“Maryland’s childcare providers have made it possible for front line workers to continue their critical work throughout this public health emergency,” Hogan said in a press release. “As we continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are grateful to childcare providers who have reopened and provided continued support to our children and families.”

The grant program is in addition to previous efforts to assist childcare providers, such as grants to support reopening efforts, sanitization and personal protective equipment as well as the essential personnel childcare program. 

Sandra Buckwalter, director and CEO of Eastern Shore Early Learning on Worcester Highway in Berlin, said her center received both rounds of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), $1,000 for cleaning and a Maryland Small Business Covid-19 Emergency Relief Grant for $10,000.

Carrie Coots, owner and director of Coastal Early Learning Center on Seahawk Road in Berlin, said she received one round of the PPP loans as well as some financial assistance from the state specifically for childcare centers. 

Jocelyn Snelsire, director of Little Lambs Learning Center on Racetrack Road near Ocean Pines, said the center received a one-time grant of $1,600 from the Maryland State Department of Education to purchase additional supplies to remain open during the pandemic last spring. Little Lambs operates with the Community Church, which was awarded a PPP loan in 2020.

“In the face of the pandemic, Maryland’s family and center-based childcare providers have remained vital partners in our early education efforts and have been essential to the State’s overall recovery efforts,” State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen B. Salmon said in a press release. “These additional grant funds will help support childcare providers manage increased costs, so they can continue to deliver safe, reliable and effective care to our children.”

Buckwalter plans to apply for the relief fund grants after suffering some serious business blows delivered by the pandemic. 

“We’re down to half enrollment and the minimum wage goes up,” she said. 

If awarded a grant, Buckwalter said she’d use the funds for staff salaries, cleaning supplies and everyday materials for the children.

As for the center’s safety protocols, the public is prohibited entry to the Eastern Shore Early Learning facility at this time. 

Buckwalter said the center uses the HiMama app to conduct contactless check-in daily and record temperatures for the children ages six weeks to pre-kindergarten. 

“We do it twice a day. We do it once in the morning and then we do it once in the afternoon,” she said. 

The older children’s temperatures are manually recorded, Buckwalter added, because HiMama is only for the younger age group.

“Then, we have masks that I purchased that the children wear ... that they never leave the building except for when I wash them,” she said. “They have two baggies – one baggy is for their dirty ones and one baggy is for their clean ones. They each have four.”

All staff members also wear masks.

Additionally, the younger children are allowed to bring in their bedding, which the staff puts into specific bags Buckwalter bought throughout the week. At the end of the week, the bags go home to be washed. 

As for babies, bottles can be brought from home in plastic reuseable bags or single-use plastic grocery bags that can be sanitized.

Eastern Shore Early Learning serves children 6 weeks old to 12 years old. Buckwalter added that the school-aged children keep their backpacks outside her office instead of going into the center with them. The center also uses desk dividers for remote learning that Buckwalter’s father built her. 

desk dividers

Calyssa Guns, a 7-year-old student at Ocean City Elementary School, left, and Alexis Anoua, a 6- year-old student at Willards Elementary School, engage in distance learning at Eastern Shore Early Learning on Worcester Highway in Berlin with the protection of face coverings and a desk divider.

There have been several cases of covid-19 among the children’s families and two related children tested positive but were asymptomatic. During the holidays, the Eastern Shore Early Learning building was closed for 14 days and the staff quarantined upon notifying the health department of the positive cases. 

During the quarantine over Christmas, Buckwalter said two related staff members tested positive from an outside exposure. 

Coastal Early Learning Center, which serves children 6 weeks old to 6 years old, has not had any recent positive cases of covid-19. In July 2020, a staff member and a child contracted the virus. 

Coots plans to apply for grant funding to cover the expenses of additional cleaning and sanitization supplies as well as PPE for staff members. 

“Just our normal supplies that we’ve always used have doubled, if not tripled, in cost, and then on top of that, we have increased supplies that we now have to use,” she said.

All staff members are required to wear masks throughout the day and children over the age of 5 are encouraged to wear masks as well. 

“We do have a temperature check every morning when the children come in the building,” Coots said. “We have limited parents inside the building. We have the covid-19 questionnaire that each parent fills out every morning.”

Children are still allowed to bring their comforting items from home. 

“They’re still children. We’re trying to do what we can do to keep the normalcy there for the kids and to keep them safe as well. It’s definitely a fine balance,” she said.

What has not changed during the pandemic is that staff members are urged to wash and sanitize their hands frequently as well as disinfect all equipment throughout the day, she added.

Coots also said she has experienced an influx of calls and emails to obtain information about the Coastal Early Learning Center.

“We have actually seen an increase in interest in enrollment, I think, due to the pandemic, especially with the older, kindergarten-aged children,” she said. “We had several kindergarteners stay this year, this [past] September. They stayed with us for their kindergarten year because of the pandemic with working parents not being able to stay home with their child and do the virtual schooling with them, so we actually had more kids stay with us this year.”

In addition, she said a lot of people are moving to the area because they can work remotely now. 

Snelsire said Little Lambs Learning Center recovered from a decline in enrollment at the beginning of the covid-19 crisis. Now, the center, which serves infants to children 12 years old, is back to full capacity with a waiting list of about a year for most classes. 

She added that she plans to apply for the grant program to fund payroll and supplies.

“We have had increased costs due to having school-aged children in the building full time this year (food costs, staffing costs, etc.) that we hope to help offset with this grant if applicable,” Snelsire said.

Additional staff members are required to assist with virtual learning as well as the drop-off and pick-up procedures. Currently, parents drop off children at the door instead of coming into the building. 

“We have not had a tuition increase in over a year, so we’re kind of doing more with the same amount that we were bringing in before,” Snelsire said.

As for safety protocols, staff members at Little Lambs Learning Center are required to wear masks and health screenings for staff and children are conducted daily including temperature checks and a covid-19 questionnaire. 

“We have increased sanitation. We are avoiding cross-contamination of classrooms and cohorts of children. So, staff are still working with the same group of children for the most part,” she added. 

Little Lambs Learning Center has experienced several covid-19 cases among staff members and children since last summer but has not had a center-wide outbreak. Snelsire said classrooms have been closed and classes quarantined, but the entire center has never shut down during the pandemic.

“I think this grant is obviously very needed. I think the needs of different centers in different areas are very different. I know that there are a lot of centers that closed last March and have not reopened yet or have not been able to reopen yet,” she added. “Locally, around here most of us stayed open for the most part, and I think that’s because we know here in at least Worcester County and most of the Eastern Shore, we just don’t have as many childcare centers as maybe across the bridge … there wasn’t really an option not to stay open. We all sort of had to.”

The grant program began accepting applications on Tuesday. The online application for currently operating childcare facilities is due by March 3. Providers must explain how they plan to use the funds and submit required data, including enrollment data, losses incurred and how funds will be used. 

For more information, visit earlychildhood.marylandpublicschools.org/.

On Tuesday, Hogan submitted a $1.59 billion supplemental budget for Fiscal Year 2022 to the state legislature as an amendment, including $931 million for local school systems to assist with the safe reopening of public schools; $434 million for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Pandemic EBT program; $128 million to support the state’s Child Care Scholarship program, including almost $60 million to help support licensed child care providers recover from the impact of the pandemic.

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