By Ally Lanasa, Staff Writer
(July 23, 2020) Childcare centers in Berlin are adapting to standards set by the Maryland State Department of Education during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a July 10 press release from the Maryland State Department of Education, additional family- and center-based child programs could reopen as part of Stage 2 of the recovery plan with safety guidelines.
This includes a limitation of 15 people allowed in each room in a childcare facility “with a ratio of no more than 1 teacher for 14 children ages three and above and the teacher must be qualified,” the release states.
In addition, “the state will transition away from unlicensed return to only authorizing licensed childcare and making payments in the Child Care Scholarship program based on attendance rather than enrollment.”
As of Monday, any remaining essential persons school age (EPSA) approved sites will no longer be allowed to operate. Only licensed childcare programs in Maryland can serve families at this time.
More than 5,300 licensed child providers throughout Maryland have reopened as of July 10.
“We are incredibly grateful to our educators, parents and community partners for all of their outstanding efforts to provide essential persons and other parents and guardians with access to childcare in these unprecedented extraordinary times,” said Dr. Karen B. Salmon, state superintendent of schools, in the release. “As we move forward, we will be upholding our rigorous licensing standards to ensure the health and safety of children. State and local education leaders are preparing their instructional plans for the fall, and this must include provisions for students when they are not in school facilities. The Division of Early Childhood’s Office of Child Care stands ready to assist, but planning must begin now.”
According to the Maryland State Department of Education, there are 16 licensed childcare personnel in Berlin.
Coastal Early Learning Center on Seahawk Road has remained open throughout the spread of covid-19, except for a voluntary two-week closure as a precautionary measure in March, said owner and director Carrie Coots.
Coastal Early Learning Center serves children 6 weeks old to 6 years old and is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
By limiting class sizes to meet the guidelines from the Maryland State Department of Education, the center has not reached its enrollment capacity of 64 children.
The center has taken several preventive measures to ensure the safety of the children and staff.
“We do take the children’s temperatures and the staff’s temperatures every morning before they come in and begin,” Coots said. “We have a health screening questionnaire that both the parents have to fill out for the children as well as the staff have to fill out each day.”
Coots said the staff conducts cleaning and sanitizing as needed throughout the day and at the end of the day.
The staff also enforces frequent hand washing daily.
“It hasn’t been a huge difference in how we operate, because we’ve always cleaned throughout the day and as needed and at the end of the day,” Coots said. “The staff and the children have always washed their hands constantly throughout the day.”
Coots aims to maintain a routine and familiarity for the children.
“We are trying to keep their daily life here as normal as possible,” Coots said. “I do think that it’s really important to keep some sense of normalcy for the children, especially as they go through such big changes in other parts of their lives through this pandemic.”
Coastal Early Learning Center does not require children or staff to wear masks.
“Some of the staff have tried to wear the masks at the very beginning of the pandemic, and it just wasn’t working … a big part of working with children is your facial expressions,” Coots said. “Part of [children] learning to speak is watching your mouth move and hearing the different inflictions of your voices. So, wearing a mask really hinders those conditions that we want young children to hear and see and listen for. It’s really hard to wear a mask in childcare.”
The center only serves snacks, so children bring their own lunches.
“We have switched to all [disposable] plastic ware,” Coots added.
Children can still bring blankets and a stuffed animal from home for nap time.
“We do send it home to be washed at least weekly,” Coots said.
Another precaution that Coastal Early Learning Center and other childcare facilities are taking is prohibiting parents inside the building.
“We have to go out front and the parents take the temperature of the child. They show us the temperature, and then we have to record it,” said Sandra Buckwalter, director and CEO of Eastern Shore Early Learning on Worcester Highway. “We all have to wear masks. The staff member that goes out has a mask on and so does the parent, and once a week they have to sign off that we’ve been doing this. Then, we bring the children inside. They have to immediately wash their hands.”
Buckwalter said the staff logs every time children wash their hands throughout the day.
There are also charts to record the amount of sanitizing done in each room daily.
Children are not allowed to bring any toys from home because there is no guarantee that they are sanitized, Buckwalter said.
“The only thing we do allow the older children—our school age children—to bring are their tablets or their computers because when school was out, we were doing their schoolwork with them,” she added.
The center also offers a food program.
Eastern Shore Early Learning is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and serves children 6 weeks old to 12 years old.
“When the pandemic first started, we were very, very limited. I only had 15 kids in my entire building at that time,” she said. “I’m up to about 45 now because of some of the changes.”
Children remain in the classroom unless they are going outside.
With a maximum of 15 people permitted per room, Buckwalter said she has rooms that aren’t being used.
“Two of my rooms can hold 25 to 30 and they’re only allowed 14 [children],” she said. “That’s what we’re all arguing about because if they don’t change that, we’re going to have real problems.”
Buckwalter said she is currently using less than a third of her building.
Little Lambs Learning Center on Racetrack Road has adjusted to the limited class size as well while it has remained open during the pandemic.
“We are following the regulations that [the Maryland State Department of Education] MSDE has put upon us for all childcare centers, which right now is no more than 15 people in any one classroom,” said Joceyln Snelsnire, director of the center. “We have limited our younger classrooms, our preschoolers, and we are only holding 10 children and one teacher in the room right now, which is the state ratio.”
The school-aged classrooms are a ratio of 1 teacher to 14 children.
Little Lambs Learning Center is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and serves children 6 weeks old to 12 years old. Currently, between 80 and 90 children are enrolled at the center.
Similar to other childcare centers, Snelsire said she had to change the drop-off procedures because parents are not allowed in the building.
“Parents now bring their children in. They go straight into a bathroom located right inside our front door, and they wash their hands and then they come out to our lobby where we have set up a check-in station,” Snelsire said. “We check children’s temperatures and are recording those every day and then we take the children and all their belongings, and we walk them back to the classroom.”
Parents are not permitted past the lobby. Snelsire said the lobby is enclosed and separated from the rest of the center by double doors.
Children are not required to wear masks at the center, although children 5 years and older are encouraged to wear them.
“Honestly, they didn’t keep them on very long. It was somewhat impractical for them to wear them. Our staff are all required to wear masks … and we’ve implemented physical distancing in our classrooms as much as we possibly can.”
In addition, teachers serve food with gloves rather than children serving themselves.
Generally, Little Lambs Learning Center follows a “no outside toy” policy. Snelsire said certain play items have been removed for the time being as well.
“We’ve eliminated some of the toys from the classroom that are harder to clean and sanitize, so a lot of our softer toys [and] dress up stuff,” she said.
As for school-aged children who were doing distance learning and may continue to do so in the fall, there are laptops at the center for them to work on or they could bring in their own laptops and tablets.
“They are still doing approximately 30 to 40 minutes of some type of online learning or game every day just to keep them in that same sort of mode,” Snelsire said.
Snelsire added that sanitizing has increased at the center during the covid-19 crisis, which includes disinfecting the playground equipment between each group.
“We are keeping classes from using shared spaces more than we used to,” she said.
Snelsire commended her staff for taking extra measures to protect the children and themselves the last few months.
“We have had very limited illnesses or sicknesses to report,” she said.
For more information about state and local childcare providers, visit marylandpublicschools.org.