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February 02, 2023

As Maryland’s school plan begins, ‘childcare deserts’ a persistent problem

Credit: The Herald-Mail

“Like was the case for thousands of other Marylanders, Jocelyn Elliott’s daughter arrived during the pandemic. While families continued to grow, the number of licensed childcare providers in the state declined, leaving long waiting lists and parents searching for options.

“It was really hard just trying to find a place for her because my husband and I had to work opposite shifts,” said Elliott, who works in administrative affairs at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Somerset County. The couple’s application for the federally supported Early Head Start program got denied. One Salisbury provider took nearly a year to have an open slot.

A newly released statewide mapping tool shows the reason why the search was so difficult. Somerset County, where Elliott works, is one of three counties statewide considered “childcare deserts,” where less than a third of children under age 5 have a spot with a licensed childcare provider.

Jocelyn Elliott and her daughter Journee play on the playground Monday, Jan. 30, 2023, at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Child and Family Development Center in Princess Anne, Maryland.
The county has 1,221 children under 5, but only 389 spots for childcare among its 26 licensed childcare providers. Cecil and Garrett counties have similar desert conditions, while other counties like Annapolis’ Anne Arundel County and Western Maryland’s Washington County are not far behind.

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Now, after emerging from the brunt of the pandemic and with a political push to expand pre-K, the childcare industry is at a point of inflection.

An online mapping tool created for Maryland Family Network shows three counties that are childcare deserts in the state (In red, from West to East: Garrett, Cecil, Somerset). Several other counties while not reaching ‘desert’ status lack enough spots for the jurisdiction’s children.
“This is such a critical point for Maryland right now,” Laura Weeldreyer, executive director of the Maryland Family Network, an organization advocating for young children and their families, said in an interview. “We’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Blueprint.”

The Blueprint and a move to pre-K too fast?
The state’s $3.8 billion decadelong education plan, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, prioritizes Early Child Education as the first of the plan’s five pillars, expanding pre-K accessibility. But, while there is no material difference for many parents between pre-K and childcare, a move to expand the former too fast may leave the latter in the lurch.

New York City “went forward with pre-K expansion,” said Weeldreyer, “and unintentionally they actually created childcare deserts.”

The Maryland Family Network executive director and former elementary school teacher said that the move to pre-K in New York created an environment in which many providers who could make the jump to pre-K certification did, leaving a lack of childcare providers. Those providers, she said, are useful to accommodate parents’ needs outside of a school schedule. Older children also often help childcare providers offset higher costs for the youngest learners.

A graph showing the weekly rates of childcare prices, on average, for three different age ranges in Maryland. Childcare is most expensive for the youngest children.
For Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the problem is not a move from childcare to pre-K too fast, but not enough licensed providers to move into the pre-K space at all. As of late January, the nine Eastern Shore counties had a total of 10 childcare providers who had entered into agreements with local school systems.

“One of the challenges on the Shore is getting private providers,” Kelly Griffith, executive director of the Eastern Shore of Maryland Educational Consortium, said Jan. 27 during a weekly meeting of the Eastern Shore delegation to the General Assembly in Annapolis.

The state launched a grant program last year with surplus money to recruit and retain those in the childcare field. There was enough funding for each of the state’s roughly 8,000 licensed childcare workers to receive a $1,000 bonus and an additional $2 million total to assist providers in recruiting and hiring. Still, not all counties experienced a childcare boon from the bonuses.

The majority (seven) of the provider agreements with school systems in the Eastern part of the state come from the Lower Shore. Worcester County has three agreements, while Wicomico County has four (Bundles of Joy University, Building Blocks, God’s Little Angels, and Wor-Wic Community College’s Jordan Center). Somerset County, however, had none as of Jan. 26.

The Blueprint law set out that 30% of pre-K was to be done by private providers by fiscal 2026, said Griffith, during a follow up phone interview. She said the 10 providers with eight to 12 children, on average, does not get the school systems anywhere near that goal, at present.

As a point of reference, Wicomico County Public Schools alone had a total of 720 students across 36 classrooms filled with 4-year-olds, said the county’s Blueprint Coordinator Frederick Briggs, in a letter late last year to the statewide Accountability and Implementation Board that oversees the law. Reaching 30% in Wicomico County would require more than 200 private provider spots for 4-year-olds.

Childcare challenges on the Eastern Shore
At a Jan. 26 meeting with state legislators, educators and even representation from the office of Maryland’s junior U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, the reluctance of rural home childcare providers to get licensed and the lack of space for certified providers came up as challenges.

Del. Jeff Ghrist, a Republican on the education subcommittee on appropriations, said at least a part of the pre-K solution is already in place through already existing organizations.

“It’s going to be our community action agencies that are going to take the lion’s share of these kids,” Ghrist, whose district includes Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties, said in an interview.

The Maryland Rural Development Corp. backed Head Start programs that serve more than 450 children in Harford, Cecil and Caroline counties on the upper Eastern and Western shores.

The corporation, which state Sen. Johnny Mautz, R-Talbot, visited late last year and has served the Caroline, Cecil, and Kent counties for decades, has an Early Head Start program serving 50 families in Cecil County. The program in Cecil, a county currently labeled a childcare desert, is looking to expand.

“It’s going to take a community effort,” Ghrist said. He noted all the various stakeholders involved in the Jan. 26 meeting about the Blueprint law and offered the possibility of seeking a waiver to exempt Maryland from federal poverty restrictions on the programs.

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Federal Head Start programs currently require participants’ families to be near the federal poverty level while the state requires a lower threshold for access to pre-K services.

In this March 3, 2017 photo, Tracie Bartemy of the Somerset County Board of Education and Freddie Mitchell of ShoreUp! Inc., chat about a renovation at Crisfield Academy and High School, where space is being created for ShoreUp!’s Head Start program in Crisfield.
The community action agency that includes the Lower Shore, SHORE UP! Inc., held Early Head Start and Head Start programs that served 196 children from birth to age 5 in seven counties (Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Somerset, Talbot, Wicomico and Worcester) last year.

With schools already at capacity in some counties, like Wicomico, the community action agency programs and the private providers might prove vital for the law’s success for pre-K students.

“”Wicomico County Public Schools recognizes the need for collaboration among the school system, private providers and community agencies (such as SHORE UP! Inc.’s Early Head Start and Head Start programs) to meet the needs of our families throughout the county,”” said Wicomico County’s Briggs.

Griffith, who directs the Eastern Shore of Maryland Educational Consortium, said all the stakeholders are there “”for the right reason.””

“Everyone is willing to think outside of the box and be innovative of how we are going to be able to do this collaboratively,” she said.

Griffith, the 2022 Maryland Superintendent of the Year, called it “exciting that you have that many different groups of people wanting to work with the school system to make this happen.”

“It can be a daunting task,” said Griffith, who became Talbot County’s superintendent in 2014, “but we know that it’s probably one of the most important things that we need to do.”

Western Maryland county nears ‘desert’ status; provider pushes forward
Washington County, the state’s third-most western jurisdiction, is on the precipice of childcare “desert” status. With more than 8,500 children younger than age 5, and less than 3,500 licensed spots among 163 childcare providers, less than 40% of the county’s children have a spot in childcare.

Some providers are already pushing ahead to expand to meet the need.

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Anthony Williams, founder and CEO of the Hagerstown-based Beacon House, called childcare the “first educational opportunity to reach kids.” His program has expanded from 20 participants to nearly 100 over the past couple of years, including 31 children under the age of 4.

A chart showing the percentage of income Maryland families spend on childcare. Costs are the highest for children under two.
On Jan. 18, Williams’ organization ratified the purchase contract for 530 N. Locust St., the current training site for the Associated Builders and Contractors. He estimated the new location would allow for more than double the young children served (80 to 85 spots for those under age 4) and could be ready for the youngest learners by the end of the calendar year.

The expansion even has the support of the area’s representative in Washington, D.C.

Democratic incumbent Rep. David Trone, center left, shares a laugh with Democratic nominee for governor Wes Moore, center right, and Hagerstown Mayor Emily Keller, far right, outside Hagerstown City Hall on Oct. 17, 2022. Trone has provided his campaign with over $10 million dollars during the past two years.
“Not only will this expansion help develop our country’s future leaders, but they will also ensure our children are granted the high-quality education that they deserve,” said U.S. Rep. David Trone, D-6th, in a statement provided to Beacon House.

‘It’s become a priority in Maryland’
Back in Annapolis and on the Shore, legislators aim to look out for those in childcare.

“It’s become a priority in Maryland,” said Ghrist, the Republican delegate, “a bipartisan priority to help daycare providers, both at home and at daycare centers.”

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And despite being in a childcare desert, Jocelyn Elliott’s childcare search ended in success.

“The search was really, really long and really, really hard,” she said. But last June, her daughter got one of about 20 spots at the University’s Child and Family Development Center on campus.

With help from a Child Care Scholarship through the state of Maryland, the young Elliott has a place to play, and more.

Jocelyn Elliott and her daughter Journee play in the bubbles Monday, Jan. 30, 2023, at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Child and Family Development Center in Princess Anne, Maryland.
“She’s learning how to play, how to share,” her mom said on behalf of her 2-year-old, who stayed home for a year during the COVID-19 pandemic. “She learned how to talk more.”

“She’s learning her colors, her letters,” the elder Elliott said. “She loves it there. She was able to make more friends.”

In fact, the younger Elliott recently reached a landmark of her own. She attended her birthday party for the first time — that of a classmate she met in childcare.”