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'We are right now on the front line' | Maryland child care providers push to be higher priority in vaccine rollout

They helped keep essential employees working when COVID hit. Now, child care providers are struggling to get access to the vaccine.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. — Child care providers feel left off the priority list as Maryland leaders work to clean up what many have called a "mess" of a vaccination rollout.

“We are right now on the front line," Carolina Reyes said. "We are taking care of the children face to face, but unfortunately we haven’t had the vaccine.”

Reyes owns Arcos Iris Bilingual Children's Center in Laurel, Maryland. She said they've been open for more than half of the pandemic, although they're teaching far fewer children. She said pre-COVID-19, their school served 62 — now, they have less than 20 students.

“We are in a crisis."

Adding to the stress — the struggle to secure a vaccine appointment.

On Friday, Reyes tried to sign up on nine different sites, to no avail. And, she's not alone.

“It’s really difficult, and we keep calling every single day," Monika Mahabare said. "Monday through Friday, we keep calling the county, see when is our turn, when can we get the shot? We’re not getting the right answers. Everyone is saying it’s not your turn yet.”

Mahabare owns a day care business with multiple centers in both Montgomery and Prince George's counties. She said they're serving 10% to 15% of their typical clientele — but they're open because parents who are front line workers need them.

Mahabare said parents told her that they would start sending their kids back to her centers if her staff got vaccinated.

RELATED: COVID vaccination not required to go back to school, CDC director says. Some MCPS teachers disagree

At the same time, multiple counties, including Prince George's and Montgomery, have partnered with health systems to set up mass vaccination clinics for public school teachers and staff — in an effort to reopen schools.

“Part of it makes no sense to me, because the teachers are getting the shot, but not many of them are in contact with the kids," Bethany Dinger said. "So, I appreciate they totally need it, because once school gets rolling, they’ll be in contact with more kids at that point, but right now, I see more kids than they do."

Dinger operates a family day care out of her home in Harford County. She feels lucky that she's been able to stay up and running as she takes care of eight children whose parents are essential workers — but she said she's also had to live every day in constant fear. She said the vaccine would help make her and her families safer.

“It’s just like who can be on top? Who can get to the first of the line, and who can be on top, and it's a mess," Dinger said.

In Montgomery County, child care directors, teachers, parents, and concerned citizens mailed over 700 letters to the Montgomery County Council, asking to be higher on the vaccination priority list. Part of the letter includes a request for some doses to be set aside for them and mass vaccination clinics to be set up specifically for the child care community.

 Here's the letter:

I am writing as a representative of Child Care Directors in the county and parent of a child in child care in your district. Thank you for your ongoing leadership during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I deeply appreciate your dedicated work to keep us in Montgomery County and in Maryland safe and healthy during this public health emergency.

I am writing today to urge you to prioritize getting vaccines to Montgomery County's essential early childhood workforce (including public and private child care centers, Head Start and Early Head Start, family home child care, visiting and early intervention program staff). I am sure you are aware that the vast majority of workers in this field all primarily low-wage women, many of whom are women of color or part of our immigrant community. We appreciate that the child care field was given 1B status in the state rollout of vaccines, and we understand right now there is a vast shortage in availability in vaccine doses to give. However, we think the Council needs to hear that child care workers must be vaccinated as quickly as possible — because we are essential front-line workers who have been working in person over the last 11 months of the current pandemic. Prioritizing this workforce of over 3,000 child care workers for vaccination will be critical to stabilizing staffing for our essential programs, reducing community spread of the virus, protecting our early educator workforce, and allowing child care programs to offer and expand the necessary child care that is required to allow Maryland parents to get back to work. As the overwhelming burden of child care responsibilities has been well-documented to fall on women, reducing their hours or causing them to exit the workforce entirely, this is an issue of economic and gender justice. 

Executive Erlich last Friday indicated clinic sites would be available to MCPS employees through the John Hopkins system for K-12 educators and staff so they can be ready to reopen for in-person instruction. All of us want our public school partners to be vaccinated. Children belong in school, and parents need to be able to work. However, the Maryland State Department of Education and the Office of Child Care have said they have no coordination or responsibility for ensuring that educators of our youngest Marylanders, 0-5 yrs., are vaccinated.

Again, child care has been operating in-person across Montgomery County and the state of Maryland for most of the pandemic. In addition, as of now only two sites are available for child care workers to qualify for vaccinations and appointments are impossible to get for the vast majority of child care workers. Further exacerbating this challenge is that the limited appointments being released are opened at times when child care workers are still working in their programs, making it impossible for them to even attempt to schedule an appointment. If the county can partner with a health care partner and set aside doses of vaccines for public school teachers who are not in person, it would seem to be most equitable to organize mass clinics dedicated to vaccinating the child care community.

I would appreciate any help or advice you can give to our extended network of child care directors and concerned parents at getting this issue to the forefront of the Council's discussion on vaccine allocation.

Once again thank you for your leadership during these difficult times.

RELATED: With Marylanders still frustrated by vaccination appointments, lawmakers are pushing for new solutions

One director said they received some responses from council members, including Gabe Albornoz and Evan Glass, in which both said: 

"The latest vaccination guidance from the Maryland Department of Health includes licensed child care facilities in the definition of Education and tells local health departments to set aside 100 doses per week for educators. The County is beginning to vaccinate child care workers, however given the small number of doses each week, the County Health Department will start with centers that serve children with special needs. There are about 40 of these programs so it will take time before the County Health Department starts to vaccinate the broader group of child care workers."

That's a mandatory 100 doses a week for all educators. 

Maryland delegate for Montgomery County Jared Solomon estimates that Montgomery County alone is home to 15,000 child care employees.

Delegate Solomon said he's working with some health systems in an effort to set up clinics devoted to vaccinating employees in the childhood education industry.

For now, it's a waiting game for providers like Rita George, who runs a day care center in Silver Spring.

“Since I’m a day care provider, it’s very very very important for us to get it," George said. "The sooner the better ... It’s just so anxious. So when are we getting? And why is it delayed? Who do we contact? Where do we call? So it’s really frustrating. I check my email every single day to make sure they do send it, but I have not received none of it.”

For Reyes — it boils down to the fact that she feels early childhood educators are often undervalued.

“We are relevant. We are very essential for our society. We are not just taking care of your children," she said. "We are preparing your child to be ready to enter the beautiful world of education with a strong foundation.”

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