There is a special kind of stress in finding and paying for day care for your children. Then there is the terror of leaving your child for the first time.

But what’s the emotion when you’re told the center you’ve come to rely on shuts its doors?

Shock, frustration and sadness, said parents picking up their children on July 28 from the Baltimore Montessori preschool in Locust Point, after they were notified by state education officials that the center’s license was suspended.

“We love the teachers at Montessori and so does our son,” said Theresa Ridgley, whose son has been attending since 2021 and whose daughter also attended.

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“Abruptly switching his routine and placing him in a new school with no notice or chance to say goodbye to his friends and teachers feels unfair, so we have chosen to stick it out in hopes that a reopening occurs soon,” she said. “Our patience is wearing thin.”

State education officials suspended the operator’s license on an emergency basis “required to protect the health, safety or welfare of a child in the child care center,” according to a letter to operators who took over the school last year.

The center didn’t have enough staff, according to state inspection records.

Revoking a license is a rare move for the state, based on interviews with education and industry officials. But the emergency suspension at Montessori may be a harbinger of a growing crisis in the child care industry that often struggles to pay the bills and, like in many other industries these days, doesn’t have enough workers who are qualified and willing to do the work.

Figures from the Maryland State Department of Education show that there were more than 8,300 child care centers in the state in 2018, and the number has dipped to about 6,900 now, accounting for about 14,000 fewer slots for young children.

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Enforcement actions don’t appear to be directly behind most of the closures in Maryland. Sanctions, suspensions and license revocations, totaled between four and 54 a year between 2010 and 2016, the last full year for which data was available online. In the first six months of 2017, there were four enforcement actions with two suspensions and one revocation.

State education officials said less than 1% of the nearly 7,000 licensed and registered programs in Maryland receive an emergency suspension.

“Revocation only happens in really extreme cases,” said Shayna Cook, assistant state superintendent for early childhood development.

“In this particular case, they received an emergency suspension, and based on those facts, a revocation is extremely unlikely,” she said. “We are working hand in hand with them, and we’ve been in communication with them pretty much daily to get them into compliance so that we can reopen them. That’s our goal. But our other responsibility is to ensure the safety and well-being of children.”

State records list the school’s operator as Ricardo Campo of ES Starmaker LLC, which shares an address with Endeavor Schools in Miami, Florida. A biography of Campo on the site lists him as founder and chief executive officer “responsible for the oversight of multiple high-performing, independent private schools in the U.S. In his leadership capacity, he manages a seasoned team of executives and educators with a passion for providing high-quality education.”

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Meg Yocum, a spokeswoman for Endeavor Schools, responded to a request for comment from the owner-operator of Baltimore Montessori. She said Thursday that they were working to resolve the dispute and couldn’t say when the school would reopen. But by Friday, she said the license had been restored without adding teachers.

“It is open Monday for parents to drop in,” she said. A “normal school schedule resumes Tuesday. No new teachers have been hired as a result of the matter. However, we anticipate regularly hiring new teachers from time to time under normal circumstances.”

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Several parents interviewed for this story before the license was restored expressed frustration at school leadership and the situation but praised the school and the teachers and expressed concern about their jobs.

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“While we are looking at short-term child care options outside of our home, in the long term we are committed to the Montessori school,” said Katie Seighman, whose 2 1/2-year-old daughter has been enrolled since March 2022, three months before the ownership change. “We love the teachers and our child has excelled at the school.”

She and Ridgely, however, said the closure had put them in a bind. Ridgely got a phone call on July 25 at 11 a.m. saying her son’s class was over capacity had she had to pick him up immediately. They returned to school the next day but on July 28 when she arrived at pickup she was handed a letter from state officials notifying her of the suspension.

Seighman had a similar story, arriving at 4:50 p.m. on July 28 and receiving the notice from state representatives.

“Both my husband and I work, similar to many other families with children attending the school,” she said.

“We are very fortunate that my parents are in town this summer,” she said. “They have been helping with child care last week and this week. That being said, I work from home. A 2 1/2-year-old a floor away makes working near impossible, as she can hear me working and then wants to be sitting on my lap.”

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Chris Peusch, executive director of the Maryland State Child Care Association, said the abrupt closure was unusual, and she called it “harsh.” She feared it would be difficult, particularly in summer, to quickly add enough staff to reopen.

She said the situation sheds light on the myriad issues at play. Child care staff pay is low, even compared to some retail jobs. In Maryland, experienced staff and teachers earn an average of just over $26,000. Aides earn about $18,000.

Plus, she said, the job requires a certain amount of training and background checks. It also takes the right personalities, people with endless wells of warmth and patience on top of teaching skills. Requirements are strict, with little ability to quickly add staff.

The pandemic closures put immense strain on center budgets, Peusch said.

Maybe somewhat counterintuitively, she said another issue has been a push for universal pre-K in public elementary schools. That siphons off older children who are less labor intensive, and thus bring in more money to the centers. Infants and toddlers require one teacher for every three kids, and the ratio drops as the children age.

“Staffing is a huge issue for a lot of our programs,” she said. “They can raise tuition, but only so much.”

Peusch said she understands state education officials have a job to do in protecting children, but she said abruptly shutting a center can have huge consequences for workers, parents and children.

Inspection records for the center on Fort Avenue in South Baltimore show officials granted the new operators a license in June 2022 to care for 122 children as young as 18 months old. The operators also took over a Montessori child care center in Canton.

Based on an anonymous complaint in July about a classroom that was over capacity, an inspector visited July 20 and found several violations involving capacity, child security, supervision and attention to care. The inspector visited two more times and issues were not resolved.

Peusch said state officials are working to improve the situation for centers in similar situations, which she said is not exclusive to Maryland.

There have been grants to lure and retain teachers, but they were not renewed this year by state lawmakers. There were are also logistical tie-ups for scholarships to students to pay the high cost of caring for the youngest residents.

She said there need to be other creative solutions akin to programs to bolster the nation’s nursing shortage and support small businesses.

“An abrupt closure is very harsh, and rare, and there has to be a better way while still supporting safety regulations,” Peusch said. “The children are sad. The parents have to work, and how do they find someone else that quickly? There are waiting lists at a lot of centers. This is a crisis. I know MSDE doesn’t take this lightly.”

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Baltimore Banner reporter Sunny Nagpaul contributed to this article.

meredith@thebaltimorebanner.com

Meredith Cohn is a health and medicine reporter for The Baltimore Banner, covering the latest research, public health developments and other news. She has been covering the beat in Baltimore for more than two decades.

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