The Maryland State Department of Education announced Thursday it will allow child care centers to operate at the capacity for which they are licensed, easing restrictions previously meant to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in an effort to support the state’s economic recovery.
Since May, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has gradually lifted capacity restrictions promoting social distancing inside “high-risk locations” such as restaurants, brick-and-mortar retail shops and places of worship. Now, almost all businesses have reopened in some fashion, though most still have restrictions such as capacity limits, face covering requirements and temperate checks.
The expansion of child care comes as a relief to both providers that operate on tight margins and parents who have struggled to find quality care while public schools continue to operate remotely.
“It’s a game changer,” said Rich Huffman, CEO of the Celebree day care and education program, which runs child care programs for multiple age groups throughout Maryland. “It allows for us to do what we do best, and it allows more parents to go back to work. It’s going to be a huge part of the state’s recovery.”
Child care centers can now have as many as 30 school-aged students in the same room with a ratio of one teacher for every 15 students.
Since July, child care centers have been limited to no more than 15 people per classroom. In March, the state closed child care centers except for the children of essential workers as the pandemic swept into the state.
State schools superintendent Karen B. Salmon said at an Annapolis news conference that more than 82% of licensed child care centers have reopened since March. But they have remained financially hindered due to the shutdown and capacity limits, she said, forcing many parents to turn to unlicensed providers who don’t meet state standards to care for children.
“Hopefully this action will assist in limiting the many unregulated and illegal operators that have sprung up in recent months, ” Salmon said. “There are no criminal background checks, no oversight, and parents can not be sure that their children are in a safe environment.”
Maryland Family Network deputy director Steve Rohde said the increased slots made available to families will mean greater protections for children. In the current situation, he said, there are fewer adults to help children wash hands and adhere to other health protocols.
While the extra slots will help some families who are on waiting lists at their day care centers, he said there are many centers that currently have openings.
“Parents are in a real quandary right now in terms of school and child care and their comfort level,” he said. “Getting back to the child care ratios in place before COVID is a good step.”
Some parents with young children had already secured temporary child care services to fill the gaps caused by the state’s restrictions. It’s unclear how many of them will switch back to licensed child care centers and providers.