Child Care at a Crossroads: COVID pandemic exacerbated decline in DC-area child care facilities

This is part two of a special three-part series, “Child Care at a Crossroads,” where WTOP looks at the state of child care now and what the future holds once billions of dollars in aid expire. Part one examines how parents struggle to find and afford good child care while many providers wonder how long they may have to survive. Read part one here.

The number of child care providers, especially in-home child care providers, was on a steady decline before the pandemic. But the pandemic only exacerbated the problem, driving some out of business while dissuading others from starting new child care businesses, since no one wanted extra people inside their homes.

In 2021, the federal government set aside $24 billion in stabilization funding to help keep child care providers in business. But those funds expire this weekend, and finding more money or another solution remains in the discussion stage at a time when providers say action is needed.

Too much asked of staff, for too little pay

“Staffing is a big problem,” said Anabela Rodas, who operates a licensed day care center from her home in Aspen Hill. “Hiring people and then retaining people, because this profession does not pay a lot. But the requirements are high, because we want quality child care. We want teachers. This is not babysitter service.”

In Maryland, the list of regulations that comes with operating a child care facility is long, and as Rodas said, now involves way more than babysitting.

Providers have to be trained in child development, come up with curricula for children to continue learning, and be trained in child health and safety, which runs the gamut from accidents to nutrition. Depending on your license, you may need even more.

“Every day, it’s more and more requirements of classes, certificates and even degrees,” she said. While expenses just to stay in business are skyrocketing.

“Families are not able to pay,” Rodas said. “They’re also suffering from the inflation. So it now is not a business where you make money.”

She said all 12 slots are filled at her licensed facility, which includes a separate classroom in her home (most in-home providers in Maryland are limited to eight kids per adult). She also has a waiting list that’s already nine kids long.

And as Maryland looks to expand its pre-K offerings in the public school system, parents may find it even harder to find a place for their child. In fact, Rodas said some of her friends in child care may go work for public school systems as paraeducators instead.

Even public pre-K programs have limits

Lana Jarvis and her husband have a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter enrolled in a pre-K program with Prince George’s County Public Schools. Last week was the first time the bus was on time to pick her up in the morning.

Jarvis is still looking for an aftercare program for her child, because when you’re in pre-K, with the rules and regulations surrounding how those children are cared for, those facilities are looking for full day students.

She said most of the aftercare programs she’s found won’t take a child who isn’t at least five years old.

“So it was very frustrating when me and my husband had to adjust our schedules,” Jarvis said.

But for providers, it’s the only way to stay in business.

“It doesn’t make any sense for us to work part time, like two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon,” Rodas said. “People have to take the whole spot, or else it doesn’t make any financial sense.”

It’s something Jarvis is finding out first hand. She worked out a deal with her boss where she’ll go in early in the morning while her husband gets their daughter to school, and then gets home early to do pickup while her husband works later.

“I had to go to my boss and ask for special permission to do things in order to fill in the gaps for our daughter,” said Jarvis. “She’s our primary responsibility.”

Luckily, she’s not totally alone — but her closest relatives are still more than a half-hour away and there’s only so many times you want to ask neighbors for help before you start to feel bad, no matter how many times they say they’re OK with it.

Child development homes become unsustainable

The last few years have been up and down for Cynthia Davis, who has spent more than 15 years running a licensed facility out of her row house in D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood.

With D.C. offering pre-K programs at all of its public schools, she focuses on toddlers and infants. And because most of the parents who leave kids with her are single and working class — employed hourly at restaurants, grocery stores or security for example — she runs a 24-hour operation out of her home.

In the past, Davis had paid employees working with her. Now, it’s just her and her daughter.

“If you notice, if you look at the ratings of all child development homes in the city, everyone is over 50,” Davis noted. “That means some people have retired from careers and they have their retirement.”

She herself is one of those over-50-year-olds. She’s used federal and city subsidies to keep rates down at her facility. She also has a master’s degree and a second job in the early childhood education field.

“Everybody wants to have more eggs in their basket … I just don’t want to have to resort back to my savings, to have to substitute incomes and things like that,” Davis said.

“This is a really good business to have. And it’s sad that in the city that we don’t promote more family/child development homes, because it’s a great resource for the city. We’re in the community. We live in the community. So we’re actually bettering our community by being in the community, living here.”

Coming up in Part Three of “Child Care at a Crossroads”: What’s next for the industry? And what has to happen so there will be an industry?

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up