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She’s spent the last couple years struggling to raise two little girls. Then COVID hit

CORDOVA — Raising two little girls was never easy as a full-time paramedic, especially since Catherine Stichberry’s husband, a tow-truck driver, has the same sporadic work schedule as her. But since March, Stichberry has faced some of the hardest decisions — like whether to bring her children to a daycare center in the middle of a pandemic, or if she should pay almost $20,000 for childcare.

Pre-COVID, Stichberry had relied on her mother most nights, but she was becoming busier with work. And there was always the issue of transmitting the virus to her older mother, since Stichberry was a paramedic on the front lines.

That also complicated her efforts to find a replacement babysitter.

“People are interested in babysitting, but some find out what my job is and are very hesitant,” Stichberry said. “They are afraid they could be exposed.”

She had considered a daycare center for a long time, but the prospect of her two and three-year-old daughters inside a childcare facility with groups of children for most of the day was daunting.

“At least when they are home we know who they are around and who they are exposed to,” she said. “It’s so frustrating trying to get childcare situated because something always comes and messes it all up.”

Stichberry eventually found the Eastern Shore Childcare Connection Facebook page. The page is a community network for parents seeking childcare and providers looking for work.

Through the page, she was finally able to hire a babysitter — for $500 a week.

Childcare has never been affordable: a recent study from the Economic Policy Institute suggests it can cost more to raise a child than it does to go to college. The annual cost for toddler-age childcare is about $10,254, and infant care is more than $15,000.

But post-COVID, the cost of childcare in the state has jumped 53 percent, according to a September report from the American Center for Progress. Instead of a $1,065 average cost per month, it’s now $1,624.

The pandemic’s arrival has complicated the childcare industry in unimaginable ways. Childcare centers have raised rates in response to increased operation costs, some parents are pulling children out of daycares while others need more expensive, all-day childcare, and state subsidies that help struggling families cannot meet this new demand.

As the virus raged during the spring, most daycare centers were closed. When they opened back up in the summer, there were restrictions on the number of children they could take in.

As of Oct. 1, restrictions have been lifted and full teacher-to-child ratios are back to pre-pandemic levels. Childcare centers can now serve up to 20 three-and four-year olds in a room, with a ratio of one teacher to 10 students, and up to 30 school-age students with a ratio of one teacher to 15 students.

“Hopefully this action will assist in limiting the many unregulated and illegal child care operators that have sprung up in recent months,” read the letter from state Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon, announcing the lifted restrictions.

It did not.

Eighty-three percent of licensed childcare providers have opened their doors, according to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), but many childcare centers are operating at deficits with fewer enrolled children, and have raised rates to compensate.

And the working-class parents with little choice but to enroll in daycare are facing average costs of $400 a week, according to a breakdown of the American Center for Progress report. In 2019, MSDE reported about a $150 average for toddler-age children in Talbot County.

Peg Anawalt, the executive director of the Chesapeake Child Care Resource Center, said costs have risen for multiple reasons: the centers had lost money during closures, are now paying for mandatory cleaning costs and personal protective equipment, and have increased staff pay to manage the children safely.

“All of this plus more caused the programs to have to increase their costs in order to stay in business,” she said, “but in many cases makes it impossible for parents to afford this care.”

Dennis Duley, owner of The Kinder Garden, said his center in Easton usually serves 80 children during the fall but now has about 50.

He’s raised his rates a few dollars to $170 a week for three and five year olds and $180 for two year olds, and he’s one of the cheaper centers around. Duley has noticed a number of new parents coming to his center this year for the cheaper option, he said.

Duley has had “increased staff costs,” from an extra staffer in the morning and night, and he lost money when he stayed open with restrictions in the spring. Low enrollment has not helped.

“We are not profitable with the children we have. We lost $5,000 in July,” he said. “It’s either close now or outlast my competitors, and my goal is to outlast the other centers. Then we can get their children — that’s my business plan.”

Duley said the Oct. 1 lifted restrictions have had little relief. He said “no one has 20 children” to watch in one room, and the requirement of two teachers to more than 10 toddler-age children is too high. During COVID, they had allowed up to 14 children for one teacher.

Compounding the issue of rising childcare costs is many parents’ need for all-day childcare now, since school-age children are not going in-person to school.

However, MSDE does not have enough money to provide additional assistance for all-day care to the 20,000 families in its childcare scholarship program.

Depending on income, MSDE will reimburse half or more of the costs a family pays for childcare each day, either for partial or all-day care.

With schools largely virtual or hybrid, most families need all-day care now, during a season where the state typically pays for partial care for school-age children. Families are left with higher costs for all-day care but funding from the state at partial subsidies.

For $153 of weekly all-day care, the state normally pays $131 for a family with middling-to-low income in Talbot County, according to an MSDE chart (pre-COVID). But the state would be paying as little as $88 for that same family under a partial subsidy.

Lora Rakowski, a spokeswoman for MSDE, said in a statement that qualifying families are being funded “just as pre-COVID.”

“Thus far, Maryland has been able to provide the budget resources required to continue fully funding the child care scholarship program,” she said.

Cristy Morrell, the executive director of Critchlow Adkins, a nonprofit that runs four daycare centers in Talbot County, said while that may be true, the program needs additional funding.

“They are paying for school-age children as if it is still before and after-school care,” she said. “If that’s not the case, I need to put in a few phone calls.”

Critchlow Adkins has taken the burden from families and is paying the leftover costs. So far, they have forked over about $6,000 extra to 35 families to keep them afloat. The nonprofit helps low-income families afford childcare by offering to pay part of their expenses, or what Morrell calls tuition.

Typically, the state would pay half, the family would pay another quarter and Critchlow the final quarter. But with the state paying no more than usual, that leaves the family to pay the extra costs — or in Critchlow’s case, them.

“The state has gone above and beyond with emergency funding and we applied for all of it,” said Morrell. “But they did not budget for all-day childcare. The money just isn’t there.”

Morrell said she usually serves more than 300 families a year, which leaves a “huge economic footprint.” Affordable childcare is beneficial to the economy, and Critchlow Adkins estimated in its latest report that it has a $1.7 million impact in the county.

Instead of paying for childcare at all, some parents are staying home on unemployment assistance to be with their children, a negative consequence for families and the economy down the road.

“More than anything else, parents are leaving their jobs,” Morrell said, explaining they are making “impossible decisions.”

Single mothers struggling with work and affordable childcare make up the highest population at homeless shelters, said Jayme Dingler, the marketing and development director at Talbot Interfaith Shelter.

“This is how people become homeless,” she said. “They have to choose between children and a job. What kind of choice is that?”

The pandemic has created a web of issues, she added. For example, many need state assistance to offset childcare costs, but some parents have been laid off.

“One of the catches built into this, you have to already have a job to qualify for this funding,” said Dingler. “How do you find a job if you don’t have someone to care for your children?”

Dingler is planning to distribute $8,500 in emergency funding from Talbot Interfaith to Critchlow Adkins, to help more families with the all-day childcare costs.

Like Stichberry, fears of the novel coronavirus have forced parents to seek out alternative childcare methods.

While some parents have turned to family sitters, such as grandparents or older children, that has its own issues, said Mary Adkins, the project coordinator for the Judy Center, which helps more than 1,000 children in Easton and St. Michaels find reliable childcare and resources.

“We’ve ended up with a lot of underground care ,” she said. “But it’s not licensed, there’s no safety measures, no qualifications.”

Adkins said parents worried about virus transmission are “ having to make that choice and there is no good choice for families right now.

“The overwhelming thing right now is guilt no matter what the decision is,” she added. “It’s tough being a parent and even tougher during this unprecedented time.”

The Judy Center has seen a surge of new families this year, many of them in higher-income brackets who had “never applied for any kind of assistance before,” Adkins said.

But to qualify for state assistance, there are income limits, which have cut off higher-income families. A family of four can’t make more than $71,525 to qualify.

In response, Adkins put out $25,000 in emergency funding to help families, but she said it’s only temporary relief.

The amount of struggling parents spurred local parent Andrew Blackwood to create the Eastern Shore Childcare Connection Facebook page. He wanted to give parents the ability to communicate about childcare online.

“Instead of trying to connect people across community groups, people can come here and connect,” he said. “Parents who need childcare are busy and need to be able to post to a focused audience.”

Membership has grown to more than 600 members and counting, Blackwood said. As a parent of four himself, he not only wanted to encourage networking but also to inform parents about the choice of an au pair, or a live-in nanny from another country, which Blackwood said has “saved” his family.

His wife is a local consultant for Cultural Care, one of the largest au pair agencies in the state. Blackwood said they have about 100 au pairs in the “pool at all times” even as demand has exponentially grown for the company this fall.

Parents pay about $19,553 for a one-year commitment. But the au pair can juggle at least four children, Blackwood said, and since they live in the home, it’s a COVID-friendly option.

“Knowing who is taking care of our children, knowing they know the house, you can’t get that intimate knowledge or peace of mind with daycares or schools and babysitters,” he said. “And it’s not a terrific amount of money.”

Stichberry has been considering that option for her two daughters, but the $9,000 down payment has dissuaded her so far.

Her babysitter situation is only temporary. The sitter is in high school and not going to continue fulltime, Stichberry said. Besides, the mother doesn’t want to continue paying $500 a week for an entire year, which would eventually lead to $26,000 for childcare.

Mostly, it’s been a never-ending struggle since March.

“We’re constantly trying to figure it out,” she said. “But you don’t want to quit your job. You have to continue paying the bills.”

Itching to get out: More events emerging from COVID-19 hibernations

ST. MICHAELS — More businesses, events and tourists are emerging across the Eastern Shore as Maryland’s coronavirus situation has shown improvements and coronavirus-weary locals and visitors yearn to get outside after months of being sequestered at home.

Some businesses on the Mid-Shore are getting ready for Halloween on Saturday, Oct. 31, and the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season.

The Old Brick Inn in St. Michaels, for example, is hosting special events for guests over the Halloween weekend — with additional ones in the works.

The inn is offering special perks for guests who book the Halloween package Oct. 30 and 31. That includes a ghost tour, pumpkin carving contest and costume party. The events will include social distancing protocols and comes after the inn previously hosted a socially distant wine tasting event.

“We are finding that everyone wants to be involved in social activities and we are having to turn away people when we reach capacity. People want to know we take safety precautions, which we take very seriously,” said George Wilson, owner of the Old Brick Inn.

Wilson said it is important to build confidence among consumers and visitors when it comes to health safety and the coronavirus.

“The best indicator of guest experience is found in the reviews given both online at TripAdvisor and Google as well as in guest response cards located at the Inn,” he said. “We have received only rave reviews about safety and the steps we take to insure guest safety. While we cannot control the situation outside of our location, we are doing all possible to control each aspect of the guest experience in order to maximize guest confidence and safety. So far, guests have been very appreciative and understand the challenges we all face. People are excited to be getting out again, and The Old Brick Inn has been fortunate enough to be sold out each weekend for the past couple of months and even through much of the fall.”

The inn is following U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines for COVID-19. It has instituted a number of policies for guests and staff. That includes an online and touch-free check-in processes, allowing only one person in the main office at a time, requiring masks while on the hotel property, open-air breakfast under a tent and closing the property on Monday’s for a professional, deep cleaning.

The inn was closed from mid-March to mid-May and with the cancellation of major events in St. Michaels has further hurt business. The inn hosted wine event earlier this month which was attended by 48 guests. The bed and breakfast is planning holiday inspired weekend deals and programming in December and at least one special weekend in February and March.

“Safety is key in the process of getting back to business — both for the inn and for the guests,” Wilson said.

There are also outdoor events coming to Easton. The Avalon Foundation is opening a new outdoor music venue on a parking lot next to the Talbot Town Shopping Center on Washington Street. Al Bond, CEO of the Avalon Foundation, said the special outdoor tent will bring back live music events to Easton helping local businesses as well as musicians.

Waterfowl Chesapeake and nine other local nonprofits will also be hosting art, nature and photography exhibits as well as events for kids and families a first ever Easton CommUNITY day on Nov. 14 and Nov. 15. Many of those events will be outdoors. The aim is offer a fall event to the community to attend and to help the participating nonprofits and local business, said Margaret Enloe, executive director of Waterfowl Chesapeake. The group puts on the big Waterfowl Festival in Easton, which was cancelled this year because of the coronavirus.

Big Tech: Facebook, Twitter, Google facing scrutiny over blocking, censoring Trump, conservatives

EASTON — The CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google will be on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Oct. 21, to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee over online censorship of a New York Post story on Hunter Biden and the suspension and banning of some conservative accounts including many associated with QAnon.

Concerns about ‘Big Tech’ extend to the Eastern Shore and Delmarva Peninsula where Trump supporters and conservatives contend Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube are restricting and censoring them.

“It is completely unacceptable for Facebook and Twitter to block the sharing of information between Americans. Their brazen attempt to affect the outcome of this election should not be tolerated by any fair-minded American,” said U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st.

Harris is a conservative and supports President Donald Trump.

Trump, White Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and other conservatives have had some of their social media posts flagged or removed by Twitter and Facebook. Twitter restricted users from sharing the New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s foreign business deals and their relations to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, his father.

Other conservatives say Twitter’s moves are part of a pattern of political and cultural biases from powerful, Silicon Valley based social media giants.

Lauren Witzke is a Republican challenging U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., in the November election. She has made some bold and very controversial social media statements on immigration, abortion, Islam, the media and Joe Biden.

“While Senator Coons defends his Big Tech donors who are squelching the First Amendment rights of Americans online, I have been suspended from Twitter for expressing perfectly ordinary conservative views on restricting immigration. Silicon Valley has made itself very clear: they are actively suppressing conservatives to help the Democrats win in November, and they must face legal repercussions for abiding Americans’ First Amendment rights, and for their interference in our elections,” Witzke said.

Witzke has also criticized Yelp for a new disclaimer that lists restaurants who have been accused of racist behavior. This came after a Grotto Pizza location in Delaware canceled a campaign event for her after receiving social media criticism.

Democrats — including Coons and U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. — have voiced concerns about misinformation (including from Russia and other countries) on social media in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election. They worried about ‘fake news’ impacting the 2016 elections and the same happening this year. They want Facebook, Twitter and others to be vigilant when it comes to content about the election and coronavirus.

Coons and Van Hollen have also been critical of Trump’s social media posts.

Social media platforms are key for advocates on all sides of the political spectrum. They have helped upstart candidates, such as Witzke and Kimberly Klacik on the right and the likes of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left, promote their agendas and raise campaign dollars. Klacik had a social media ad go viral for her Maryland congressional run and was later promoted by Trump. She raised $6.4 million in this most recent reporting period, according to the Federal Election Commission.The Senate committee hearing in Washington will feature Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Alphabet Inc./Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Google also owns YouTube. Facebook also owns Instagram. The hearing will focus on free speech concerns, legal protections enjoyed by social media giants, potential antitrust issues and political biases.

The social media firms and Yelp have not yet responded to questions from The Star Democrat regarding their restrictions of some accounts and posted content in the lead up to the election.

Dorsey said on Twitter on Friday, Oct. 16, that blocking sharing of the Hunter Biden story was a mistake.

“Straight blocking of URLs was wrong, and we updated our policy and enforcement to fix. Our goal is to attempt to add context, and now we have capabilities to do that,” Dorsey said in a social media statement.

Facebook Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen earlier this month outlined some of the company’s programs to deal with misinformation and so-called ‘fake news’.

“Since 2016, we’ve built an advanced system combining people and technology to review the billions of pieces of content that are posted to our platform every day. State-of-the-art AI systems flag content that may violate our policies, users report content to us they believe is questionable and our own teams review content,” Rosen said.

“We’ve also been building a parallel viral content review system to flag posts that may be going viral – no matter what type of content it is – as an additional safety net. This helps us catch content that our traditional systems may not pick up.”

Between March and September, Rosen said Facebook and Instagram blocked 120,000 pieces of content and displayed ‘misinformation warnings’ on 150 million posts. The company also rejected 2.2 million ads, Rosen said.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have also been suspending, restricting or banning accounts associated with the QAnon movement.

QAnon advocates worry about child sex trafficking rings and potential connections to political, business and Hollywood elites. QAnon proponents also tend to support Trump. The social media firms and other skeptics contend QAnon promulgates conspiracy theories, promotes hate speech and could have ties to extremist groups. FBI Director Christopher Wray called QAnon a “complex set of a conspiracy theories” during a U.S. House Homeland Security Committee hearing last month.

Yelp Vice President of Operations Noorie Malik said in a statement the controversy related disclaimers placed on restaurants and other businesses’ social media pages are part of the company’s “zero-tolerance policy to racism.”

“As the nation reckons with issues of systemic racism, we’ve seen in the last few months that there is a clear need to warn consumers about businesses associated with egregious, racially-charged actions to help people make more informed spending decisions,” Malik said.

“Now, when a business gains public attention for reports of racist conduct, such as using racist language or symbols, Yelp will place a new Business Accused of Racist Behavior Alert on their Yelp page to inform users, along with a link to a news article where they can learn more about the incident,” Malik said.

Witzke counters that the Yelp policies allow left-wing groups such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter to intimidate businesses in order to censor conservatives.

Some residents on the Eastern Shore are also concerned about the power of big technology and social media firms and how they maybe restricting some voices, including conservative and pro-Trump ones.

“I do believe that the conservatives and Republicans are being censored. Free speech should belong to everyone not just a chosen few from the Hollywood bunch and the left,” said John Gondeck, an author from Denton. “When a conservative begins to speak the left does all they can to shut them up from bull horns to screaming and hollering at them. Where is the tolerance for all? Tolerance is a one way street for them. As far as the media goes, have looked into who owns the media? Most of them have the morals of an ally cat and they are too far left.”

Cynthia Baynard, of Easton, agrees and feels social media platforms favor progressives over Trump supporters and conservatives.

“I do think all of them are filtering and targeting trump supporters and yes it’s happened to me. I’ve had things I’ve posted show up as content unavailable fake or unreliable source under it when it originally came from a source such as New York Times or something reputable,” she said.

Baynard contends Democrats are not held to the same standards.

Henderson man critically injured in crash

FEDERALSBURG — A Henderson man was seriously injured on a head-on crash on Maryland Route 404 Friday afternoon, Oct. 16, and Maryland State Police say they believe alcohol and drugs were involved in the crash. A Delaware woman has been charged.

Timothy Allen Kohlhaus, 52, of Henderson, and a companion were riding their motorcycles east on Route 404 in the vicinity of Noble Road about 1 p.m. when a white Honda CRV traveling west crossed over the centerline into their lane to pass another vehicle and struck Kohlhaus’ black, 2020 Harley-Davidson motorcycle head on, according to Cpl. J. Davenport, duty officer at Maryland State Police Easton barracks.

Kohlhaus’ companion was able to avoid the collision, and a gray GMC Yukon ran off the road to miss the wreck, Davenport said.

Kohlhaus’ leg was amputated in the crash. A witness who arrived right after the crash applied a tourniquet and assisted in saving Kohlhaus’ life at the scene, Davenport said.

With the rain and poor visibility Friday afternoon, medevac helicopters were grounded. Kohlhaus was taken by ambulance to Tidal Health Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, where he underwent surgery Friday night and was in critical condition, Davenport said.

No other injuries were reported.

Police identified the driver of the Honda CRV as Rachel Ann Rinas, 36, of Ocean View, Del. Rinas was charged with driving while intoxicated and issued related traffic citations, Davenport said.

In addition to Maryland State Police, Caroline County Emergency Medical Services, Caroline County Sheriff’s Office, Federalsburg Volunteer Fire Company and Denton Volunteer Fire Company all responded. Also, the MSP Crash Team was called in to reconstruct the accident, Davenport said. The road remained closed until almost 5 p.m.

Tpr. Zachary Brown is leading the investigation, which is ongoing.