She’s spent the last couple years struggling to raise two little girls. Then COVID hit.

BRAD DRESS October 18, 2020

CORDOVA — Raising two little girls was never easy as a full-time paramedic, especially since Catherine Stichberry’s husband, a tow-truck driver, has the same sporadic work schedule as her. But since March, Stichberry has faced some of the hardest decisions — like whether to bring her children to a daycare center in the middle of a pandemic, or if she should pay almost $20,000 for childcare.

Pre-COVID, Stichberry had relied on her mother most nights, but she was becoming busier with work. And there was always the issue of transmitting the virus to her older mother, since Stichberry was a paramedic on the front lines.

That also complicated her efforts to find a replacement babysitter.

“People are interested in babysitting, but some find out what my job is and are very hesitant,” Stichberry said. “They are afraid they could be exposed.”

She had considered a daycare center for a long time, but the prospect of her two and three-year-old daughters inside a childcare facility with groups of children for most of the day was daunting.

“At least when they are home we know who they are around and who they are exposed to,” she said. “It’s so frustrating trying to get childcare situated because something always comes and messes it all up.”

Stichberry eventually found the Eastern Shore Childcare Connection Facebook page. The page is a community network for parents seeking childcare and providers looking for work.

Through the page, she was finally able to hire a babysitter — for $500 a week.

Childcare has never been affordable: a recent study from the Economic Policy Institute suggests it can cost more to raise a child than it does to go to college. The annual cost for toddler-age childcare is about $10,254, and infant care is more than $15,000.

But post-COVID, the cost of childcare in the state has jumped 53 percent, according to a September report from the American Center for Progress. Instead of a $1,065 average cost per month, it’s now $1,624.

The pandemic’s arrival has complicated the childcare industry in unimaginable ways. Childcare centers have raised rates in response to increased operation costs, some parents are pulling children out of daycares while others need more expensive, all-day childcare, and state subsidies that help struggling families cannot meet this new demand.

As the virus raged during the spring, most daycare centers were closed. When they opened back up in the summer, there were restrictions on the number of children they could take in.

As of Oct. 1, restrictions have been lifted and full teacher-to-child ratios are back to pre-pandemic levels. Childcare centers can now serve up to 20 three-and four-year olds in a room, with a ratio of one teacher to 10 students, and up to 30 school-age students with a ratio of one teacher to 15 students.

“Hopefully this action will assist in limiting the many unregulated and illegal child care operators that have sprung up in recent months,” read the letter from state Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon, announcing the lifted restrictions.

It did not.

Eighty-three percent of licensed childcare providers have opened their doors, according to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), but many childcare centers are operating at deficits with fewer enrolled children, and have raised rates to compensate.

And the working-class parents with little choice but to enroll in daycare are facing average costs of $400 a week, according to a breakdown of the American Center for Progress report. In 2019, MSDE reported about a $150 average for toddler-age children in Talbot County.

Peg Anawalt, the executive director of the Chesapeake Child Care Resource Center, said costs have risen for multiple reasons: the centers had lost money during closures, are now paying for mandatory cleaning costs and personal protective equipment, and have increased staff pay to manage the children safely.

“All of this plus more caused the programs to have to increase their costs in order to stay in business,” she said, “but in many cases makes it impossible for parents to afford this care.”

Dennis Duley, owner of The Kinder Garden, said his center in Easton usually serves 80 children during the fall but now has about 50.

He’s raised his rates a few dollars to $170 a week for three and five year olds and $180 for two year olds, and he’s one of the cheaper centers around. Duley has noticed a number of new parents coming to his center this year for the cheaper option, he said.

Duley has had “increased staff costs,” from an extra staffer in the morning and night, and he lost money when he stayed open with restrictions in the spring. Low enrollment has not helped.

“We are not profitable with the children we have. We lost $5,000 in July,” he said. “It’s either close now or outlast my competitors, and my goal is to outlast the other centers. Then we can get their children — that’s my business plan.”

Duley said the Oct. 1 lifted restrictions have had little relief. He said “no one has 20 children” to watch in one room, and the requirement of two teachers to more than 10 toddler-age children is too high. During COVID, they had allowed up to 14 children for one teacher.

Compounding the issue of rising childcare costs is many parents’ need for all-day childcare now, since school-age children are not going in-person to school.

However, MSDE does not have enough money to provide additional assistance for all-day care to the 20,000 families in its childcare scholarship program.

Depending on income, MSDE will reimburse half or more of the costs a family pays for childcare each day, either for partial or all-day care.

With schools largely virtual or hybrid, most families need all-day care now, during a season where the state typically pays for partial care for school-age children. Families are left with higher costs for all-day care but funding from the state at partial subsidies.

For $153 of weekly all-day care, the state normally pays $131 for a family with middling-to-low income in Talbot County, according to an MSDE chart (pre-COVID). But the state would be paying as little as $88 for that same family under a partial subsidy.

Lora Rakowski, a spokeswoman for MSDE, said in a statement that qualifying families are being funded “just as pre-COVID.”

“Thus far, Maryland has been able to provide the budget resources required to continue fully funding the child care scholarship program,” she said.

Cristy Morrell, the executive director of Critchlow Adkins, a nonprofit that runs four daycare centers in Talbot County, said while that may be true, the program needs additional funding.

“They are paying for school-age children as if it is still before and after-school care,” she said. “If that’s not the case, I need to put in a few phone calls.”

Critchlow Adkins has taken the burden from families and is paying the leftover costs. So far, they have forked over about $6,000 extra to 35 families to keep them afloat. The nonprofit helps low-income families afford childcare by offering to pay part of their expenses, or what Morrell calls tuition.

Typically, the state would pay half, the family would pay another quarter and Critchlow the final quarter. But with the state paying no more than usual, that leaves the family to pay the extra costs — or in Critchlow’s case, them.

“The state has gone above and beyond with emergency funding and we applied for all of it,” said Morrell. “But they did not budget for all-day childcare. The money just isn’t there.”

Morrell said she usually serves more than 300 families a year, which leaves a “huge economic footprint.” Affordable childcare is beneficial to the economy, and Critchlow Adkins estimated in its latest report that it has a $1.7 million impact in the county.

Instead of paying for childcare at all, some parents are staying home on unemployment assistance to be with their children, a negative consequence for families and the economy down the road.

“More than anything else, parents are leaving their jobs,” Morrell said, explaining they are making “impossible decisions.”

Single mothers struggling with work and affordable childcare make up the highest population at homeless shelters, said Jayme Dingler, the marketing and development director at Talbot Interfaith Shelter.

“This is how people become homeless,” she said. “They have to choose between children and a job. What kind of choice is that?”

The pandemic has created a web of issues, she added. For example, many need state assistance to offset childcare costs, but some parents have been laid off.

“One of the catches built into this, you have to already have a job to qualify for this funding,” said Dingler. “How do you find a job if you don’t have someone to care for your children?”

Dingler is planning to distribute $8,500 in emergency funding from Talbot Interfaith to Critchlow Adkins, to help more families with the all-day childcare costs.

Like Stichberry, fears of the novel coronavirus have forced parents to seek out alternative childcare methods.

While some parents have turned to family sitters, such as grandparents or older children, that has its own issues, said Mary Adkins, the project coordinator for the Judy Center, which helps more than 1,000 children in Easton and St. Michaels find reliable childcare and resources.

“We’ve ended up with a lot of underground care ,” she said. “But it’s not licensed, there’s no safety measures, no qualifications.”

Adkins said parents worried about virus transmission are “ having to make that choice and there is no good choice for families right now.

“The overwhelming thing right now is guilt no matter what the decision is,” she added. “It’s tough being a parent and even tougher during this unprecedented time.”

The Judy Center has seen a surge of new families this year, many of them in higher-income brackets who had “never applied for any kind of assistance before,” Adkins said.

But to qualify for state assistance, there are income limits, which have cut off higher-income families. A family of four can’t make more than $71,525 to qualify.

In response, Adkins put out $25,000 in emergency funding to help families, but she said it’s only temporary relief.

The amount of struggling parents spurred local parent Andrew Blackwood to create the Eastern Shore Childcare Connection Facebook page. He wanted to give parents the ability to communicate about childcare online.

“Instead of trying to connect people across community groups, people can come here and connect,” he said. “Parents who need childcare are busy and need to be able to post to a focused audience.”

Membership has grown to more than 600 members and counting, Blackwood said. As a parent of four himself, he not only wanted to encourage networking but also to inform parents about the choice of an au pair, or a live-in nanny from another country, which Blackwood said has “saved” his family.

His wife is a local consultant for Cultural Care, one of the largest au pair agencies in the state. Blackwood said they have about 100 au pairs in the “pool at all times” even as demand has exponentially grown for the company this fall.

Parents pay about $19,553 for a one-year commitment. But the au pair can juggle at least four children, Blackwood said, and since they live in the home, it’s a COVID-friendly option.

“Knowing who is taking care of our children, knowing they know the house, you can’t get that intimate knowledge or peace of mind with daycares or schools and babysitters,” he said. “And it’s not a terrific amount of money.”

Stichberry has been considering that option for her two daughters, but the $9,000 down payment has dissuaded her so far.

Her babysitter situation is only temporary. The sitter is in high school and not going to continue fulltime, Stichberry said. Besides, the mother doesn’t want to continue paying $500 a week for an entire year, which would eventually lead to $26,000 for childcare.

Mostly, it’s been a never-ending struggle since March.

“We’re constantly trying to figure it out,” she said. “But you don’t want to quit your job. You have to continue paying the bills.”