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As W.Va. Attempts To End Child Care Deserts, Parents Struggle To Merge Work, School, Family

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It’s the morning of the first day of school for Megan Hullinger’s two oldest children. She wakes at 6 to prepare lunches and get her four children dressed.

Around 7:30, she packs them all into her car. 11-year-old Tessa, 8-year-old Abby, 3-year-old Nathan, and 1 year old. Gemma, her baby. She drops them each off at a different school, Abby to elementary school, Tessa to middle school, then Nathan at his child care center.

Her last stop before heading into the office is Gemma’s babysitter. Hullinger’s youngest child is on a waiting list to get into a daycare. There are only two options for a registered child care facility in her county, Pocahontas, a rural, mountainous area in West Virginia.

It took nearly three years for Hullinger to get her son, Nathan, a spot. “It’s almost impossible to get a child under the age of two into a registered center,” Hullinger said.

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Courtesy Megan Hullinger

A year after he first started school, her 3-year-old son is thriving. “He loves it, he loves his teachers,” Hullinger said. “He gets a lot of art time. I found out that he really loves to draw and write. It’s been really great for him, and to be around kids his age has been really great.”

Hullinger is happy with the level of care he’s receiving, and hopes her daughter Gemma will be able to get a spot at the same center. But she says she’ll happily take the first available opening- even if it’s at a school on the other side of her county, which is a thirty minute drive. That would mean an additional two hours on her commute each day.

Hullinger lives in what’s known as a child care desert. According to data from the Center for American Progress, over sixty percent of people in West Virginia live in a child care desert.

“It’s mostly the rural areas of our state,” said Barbara Gebhard, an expert in early childhood education, and a consultant for an initiative called “The Earlier The Better,” which is trying to improve child care in West Virginia. One of its main priorities is to help expand child care in rural regions, so families don’t have to wait years to get into a child care center.

early childcare center covid closures

About a quarter of early child care centers in the state closed last year, according to to Dr. Jeffrey, a pediatrician at Charleston Area Medical Center, and one of the people working on “The Earlier The Better” Initiative. Jeffrey worked with researchers at the Benedum Foundation to compile a map that shows the number of child care centers that closed during the pandemic. Their map shows a snapshot in January 2020. In the early months of the pandemic, many child care centers closed, said Jeffrey. Some were able to reopen, but the industry took a big hit in 2020– here in Appalachia as well as across the country.

Jeffrey said their group would love to see the state, or federal government, provide funding to help people open news centers in child care deserts, or work with existing child care directors to expand their businesses, so they can accept more children.

She and other child care advocates with “The Earlier the Better” say they also want to see more child care centers in West Virginia offer better quality education. That would mean staff would have more training in topics like early childhood development, and, ideally, bachelor’s degrees. It would help improve the level of care for all kids, including children with special needs.

More Than ‘Day Care’- Advocates Want Specialized Care With Trained Staff

In Morgantown, West Virginia, Tayrn Moser’s second son was having behavioral problems at his child care centers. He was two.

“He just had these outbursts and because the staff was not educated or trained on how to handle his emotions,” Moser said. “It turned into two to three-hour tantrums.”

The child care center her son was at eventually told Moser they couldn’t continue taking care of her son. She could have gone through the local school system to get him into preschool early– those programs exist in each county in the state, free for parents who have children with special needs.

But Moser found another child care center where staff were trained in occupational therapy, and she asked to be put on the waiting list.

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Courtesy Taryn Moser

“I knew that this would be the best environment for my son,” Moser said. “And once we got him into this facility, he was able to thrive.”

But it took 16 months before a spot opened up for her son. During that time, she had babysitters and family members help out, but it was a struggle. At times, she considered quitting her job to be able to take care of her son.
“I didn’t want him to be left behind,” Moser said. “And every day, it was such a challenge. It was very, very hard for me to leave him every day. I was scared for my son. I wanted to stay home and I wanted to be with him.”

In addition to not enough spaces available for children, parents also face a high cost of tuition– about $10,000 per year per child enrolled in full-time child care. That’s more than tuition at a community college in West Virginia. This high cost is partly due to ratios– child care centers are required to have one staff for every four children under two years old.

At the same time, a family’s income has to be very low to qualify for any kind of subsidy to help pay. For example, in West Virginia a family of four would be eligible for partial assistance if their income is less than approximately $48,000 a year. For full assistance – meaning the family pays nothing for child care – a family of four would have to make less than approximately $10,300 a year.

Subsidized Child Care For Essential Workers, Regardless Of Income

During the COVID-19 pandemic, several relief packages included funding to support working families, as well as help support the child care industry. One of the biggest things West Virginia did with its COVID relief money was it put it towards paying for child care for essential workers, no matter their income.

The state also changed the way it pays child care centers for subsidized tuition. Previous to the pandemic, if a child was out sick or if their family went on vacation, the child care center didn’t get paid– if that child was receiving subsidized tuition. Now, however, child care centers get paid for the whole month, not by how many days a kid was actually in school.

“It encourages every child care center to accept subsidy and not use that as an excuse not to accept subsidy,” said Dr. Jamie Jeffrey. “So that every single child no matter who were where they are, has access to affordable child care.”

Jeffrey and others in her group put together some of the recommendations for how the state should spend its COVID relief money. They advised the state ’s Department of Health and Human Resources, which is the agency in charge of regulating early child care.

They’re hoping some of the new policies the state put in place during the pandemic will continue as infection rates and concerns drop off.

Their group also recommended that child care programs receive more money per child enrolled in their school. This is because child care centers were already struggling financially to make ends meet even before the pandemic. On top of that, during the pandemic many tried to reduce their classroom sizes, to allow for social distancing, and they had to do a lot more cleaning. All these changes take more staff, so some of the covid relief went directly to child care centers to help them stay afloat financially. It wasn’t a lot of money, but according to Jeffrey, it was enough to help many childcare centers stay open.

Low Wages For Child Care Workers

None of the COVID relief money West Virginia received went directly towards increasing pay for child care workers. Most child care teachers are paid low wages, around $10-$11 an hour, and sometimes, they don’t even earn sick or vacation leave. So retaining qualified staff is a challenge for child care centers.

“It is the worst we’ve ever experienced trying to hire staff,” said Helen Post-Brown, who’s run Sunbeam Early Learning Center in Fairmont, West Virginia for 41 years. “Luckily, we kept our core staff at the center, but we need more than them. And it has been very difficult to first find someone qualified, and then someone willing to work now.”

Post-Brown is another one of the advocates working on “The Earlier the Better” initiative. They’d love to see more funding go towards teachers, making their salaries equivalent to their experience.

She and other child care advocates with the “The Earlier The Better,” Project – are hoping that some of the changes that were implemented during the pandemic can become more permanent. But where the money would come from is not clear.

Right now, Congress is arguing over spending trillions of dollars to boost the country’s infrastructure. President Joe Biden’s “American Families Plan” includes funding for child care. This funding would help, but it would not be enough to fix all the issues that are facing parents and child care workers?

Back in Pocahontas County, it’s 3 p.m. in the afternoon, time for Megan Hullinger to pick up her four kids. Normally, her two older kids walk home, and spend the afternoon with a babysitter. But today— her sitter has to go to a doctor’s appointment, so Hullinger picks up her children a little early.

She says without her family to support her, and neighbors who’ve helped with child care, she doesn’t think she could have kept working while she waits to get her kids into child care.

She picks up her youngest, one-year-old Gemma, first. On this hot August day, Gemma is singing “Jingle Bells.” Then they swing by the elementary school to pick up Abby. Gemma wraps her arms around her 8-year-old sister. They head out to pick up Nathan next, and then Tessa. Then the family drives back up the mountain, to home.

This story is part of a two-part series for Inside Appalachia about child care in W.Va. Read the other story here.