When D.C. began to roll back COVID-19-related restrictions late last year, child care providers served as a vital resource for essential workers and others who needed adult supervision for their youngsters during the workday.
Nonetheless, according to many early childhood education advocates, many of the District’s more than 400 child care providers face financial ruin due to a policy that awards subsidies based on attendance rather than enrollment.
And with a growing number of parents still opting to keep their children home due to the ongoing pandemic, the future appears daunting for child care providers who supply essential early lessons in education whether youth receive instruction virtually or in the classroom.
“If this was like World War II where you could see bombs dropping, then you wouldn’t have little babies going out to a day care, ” said Dr. Bernida Thompson, founder and principal of Roots Public Charter School, a Northwest-based institution that includes pre-school and elementary grade levels.
Since last March when the District declared a public health emergency, Roots PCS launched its virtual learning component with all of per-pupil funding allocated to the institution for the 2019-2020 academic year remaining intact.
However, upon Roots PCS’ mandatory shift to a hybrid-learning model in November, the amount distributed by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education [OSSE] was reduced by 50 percent of the amount Roots received during the previous year.
Thompson told The Informer that the reduction represents the decision of a parent population in which only one-half have sent their children back to in-class instruction.
“The mayor is not exposing her baby to a day care/school environment so why are child care centers penalized for parents preferring to keep their babies home and using remote education?” Thompson asked. “This is not something where people should have to take their babies out into the deadly world of a pandemic. We should keep our babies inside with their parents.”
“In 2021, school is not just brick and mortar. The young people have been using technology. Even before 2021, we saw that ‘Sesame Street’ taught a lot of pre-school children,” she said.
A report compiled by DC Action for Children in November identified OSSE subsidies as a significant source of funding for child care centers. The report showed that out of the two-thirds of the District’s early child care centers planning to open, less than 33 percent expected enrollment to reach pre-COVID-19 levels. This rang true for centers serving more than 50 children.
Prior to the pandemic, 258 of the District’s 469 early child care centers received reimbursements for student subsidies based on attendance.
Though OSSE started doling out subsidies based on enrollment, not attendance, at the start of the pandemic, the office reverted to the original arrangement in November on the condition that the amount given would increase by more than 30 percent, starting in January, to make up for a lower student population.
That rate, set by a formula, would change every three months in alignment with other policies to increase early child care subsidies, an OSSE official told The Informer.
Other conditions put forth by OSSE last November involve increases of allowable monthly excused absences from five to 10 and the classification of COVID-19-related absences as excused. While the District’s public schools currently operate virtually, early child care centers that facilitate virtual learning would also be compensated for a full day’s rate.
However, not even those overtures have sufficed for some early child care providers, like Bridget Hall of Big Mama’s Children Center – a business located in Southwest on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue that’s been in operation for nearly 40 years.
Since November, Big Mama’s Children Center has been at nearly one-third of its capacity, a situation that Hall said caused her to seek grants, furlough her staff and divert funds often used to purchase food and toiletries for families for the purchase of personal protective equipment.
Meanwhile, Hall continues to engage parents who remain ambivalent about sending their children back, all to no avail.
“At first, the D.C. government gave us a monthly reimbursement check for 74 children but as of November, they cut that [amount] to the number of children that are [in the classroom],” Hall said. That’s 24 children and not enough.”
“I’m faced with parents who are still uncomfortable with bringing in their children. I don’t blame them. My heart goes out to them.”