A family walks away with "grab & go" meal pouches in Arlington, VA.
In March, the District lifted restrictions on class sizes in the city's public schools, traditional and charter. It allowed campuses to bring back more students for in-person learning as long as social distancing requirements were followed.
But the relaxed rules did not apply to early child care centers, which must still limit class sizes to 10 children and two adults. Child care providers say holding their programs to a different set of standards than public schools is unfair.
"We just want to be treated equally," said Cristina Encinas, the head of Estrellitas Montessori School in 16th Street Heights. "If it's safe for them, it's safe for us."
Relaxing the rules would mean providers could serve more students and earn more income, which is badly needed for many centers that faced financial hardship during the pandemic, said Encinas, who is also president of the Multicultural Spanish Speaking Providers Association, a non-profit that represents Spanish-speaking child care operators in the D.C. region.
D.C. Health said they are planning on updating guidance for child care centers to align with the recommendations for schools but did not say when that will officially happen.
Health officials told public schools on March 25 they could lower physical distancing requirements in most settings from 6 feet to 3 feet. The city also lifted caps on class sizes.
But that guidance, which matched recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was not extended to child care operators that educate children who are preschool-age and younger.
Encinas said many small operators need the tuition income they would earn from caring for more children. Many have faced mounting expenses from having to pay for supplies needed to follow safety regulations during the public health crisis, including protective equipment and partitions.
"When you have a center with less than 30 children, the impact is huge," she said. "Those are the centers at risk of losing their businesses."
She said some centers have received money from the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program for small businesses. The low-interest loans are forgiven if businesses meet certain conditions, including using most of the money on payroll. But Encinas said language barriers have made the application process challenging for many Spanish-speaking providers.
At Estrellitas Montessori School, which has stayed open for most of the pandemic, Encinas had to hire more staff to accommodate the smaller class sizes mandated by safety protocols.
More than 100 families are on the waitlist for the Spanish-immersion school.
"People were really desperate and in need of child care because they had to work," she said. "We had to double the staff to serve half of the children."
The DC Directors Exchange, a coalition that represents early childhood program operators across the city, wrote a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser and members of the D.C. Council, urging the officials to update guidance for child care centers by May 12 so providers can plan for the fall.
"As the city turns to reopening and parents return to work, we cannot afford to lose a single childcare slot, let alone another childcare provider," the letter said.
Berna Artis, head of School for Friends, said her preschool has operated at a budget deficit throughout the pandemic. She said she is licensed to educate 70 children at the school's campus in DuPont Circle but can only accommodate 50 children under the current restrictions.
She said she does not understand why the city has not adjusted distancing requirements for child care centers and lifted classroom caps.
"If the science is saying this is safe to do so in a pre-K classroom [at a] public school, why isn't the same science telling us that?," she said.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.