Bath County considering options to fill gap in child care shortage

Published: Aug. 11, 2022 at 1:32 PM EDT
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BATH COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ) - In between counseling telehealth sessions with her clients, Behavioral Health Therapist Pari Baker coos over her infant, Pippa.

“Say hi!” she says to the baby, around whose head she’s placed a bright, white flower. Pippa, nearly six months old, giggles. She’s just awakened from a nap upstairs.

Nearby, Baker’s nanny is in the living room, prepped to take Pippa when Baker’s lunch break is over and her next counseling session begins. Baker says the nanny is essential for her workday.

“Oh, oh gosh, there would be no way! There would be no way,” she said of working at home alone with the baby. “Because my husband and I have tried to, you know, figure out a way. Like is there a way - I mean can you imagine - you’re trying to process trauma with your therapist and your therapist’s child is screaming just a few feet away?”

While she’s fortunate to have this option, having an in-home nanny is more expensive and can be less reliable than a licensed facility, Baker says. And when she’s a little older, Baker wants Pippa to be able to learn how to socialize with other kids.

But for now, this is her only option.

Her home of Bath County doesn’t have a single licensed, private child care provider. The next closest facility is over a mountain, an hour away.

“It really wasn’t until like last October, November that I started to go, ‘Oh wait a minute, when I have this baby in February then what happens?’” Baker said.

What happens varies for families who have children. Some make the hours-long drive to Highland County and back. Some can rely on family. Some are worried they’ll have to leave.

Bath County does have Pre-K programs in the elementary schools and there is one day home provider voluntarily registered with the state. Voluntary registration is a form of regulation offered to family day homes that are not required to be licensed. These homes have fewer than five children in care, not including the provider’s own children and any children who reside in the home.

But that can’t meet the demand county leaders say they know exists.

“To the digital survey we received 120 responses which was overwhelming; we really didn’t know we’d get that many responses,” said Janet Bryan, Interim County Administrator.

Bryan said the county conducted a survey in December 2021 that showed a great need, particularly for infants to three-year-olds and after-school programs for school-aged children.

“We’re having trouble getting teachers because they can’t find child care,” said Bryan, noting the county’s major employers are also struggling to fill open positions. Enrollment in public schools is also declining. When children leave the county, state funding goes with them.

“We have families that are now struggling, who are absent from work when they shouldn’t be,” said Bryan. “So we have had those comments that, ‘I’ll be forced to leave if I can’t find child care.’”

It’s a thought that’s run through Baker’s mind, too.

“We love it here. We wanna stay here. We want to raise our family here. But if we don’t have the resources to do it, then we may not have any options to stay here. We may have to move to a place that has child care or I might have to stop working but then that’s a big change too to go from a two-income household to a single-income home,” she said as Pippa giggled in her lap. “It’s not as funny as you think,” she chuckles grimly in rebuttal.

That’s why county leaders say they’re considering intervening. Bath County is considering providing a site for a licensed provider to take over and run.

“The county does not propose to run a child care facility,” Bryan explained. “The county has been talking with different major employers, different child care vendors to see if we could somehow provide a space and then someone else would take over. The vendor would take over and employ the folks and have all the licensing, the liabilities. The county would just provide the space.”

The idea was discussed in the July Board of Supervisors meeting during the public comment session.

Baker was among those who spoke up in favor of the idea. But she ran into some unexpected opposition, even from people who admitted they didn’t know exactly what the notion called for.

Carl Chestnut told supervisors he was against the county getting involved.

“I don’t think that should be paid for with our tax dollars,” he explained. “Our tax dollars go... and when we had kids we had to find a babysitter, and they can do the same thing.”

Wally Roberston echoed a similar concern.

“Where’s the EDA? What are they doing for us?” asked Robertson. “You know, can’t they get grants or something? Now they want to take our taxpayers’ money and I’m going to try to take care of people’s children, I tell ya I’m too old to start babysitting.”

Another man spoke up.

“If you don’t work for the county, you don’t live in the county, I don’t know how that’s gonna go either, they shouldn’t be here. I don’t wanna pay for them,” said Keswick Phillips. “Nothing. Not one cent.”

They were a vocal minority, however, as several other parents took to the podium to speak in favor of the idea, with several of them noting they have no problem paying the fees required for their children to attend.

Bryan said, in response to those concerns, that it’s not vastly different from other ways the county has spent taxpayer dollars.

“We give more than probably any other nearby locality to volunteer groups,” she said. “We support non-profits with taxpayer dollars, so we feel like this would be equally as important. It would keep younger families here. It would help families and support our schools and that would bring more money into the county in the long run we feel.”

The county wasn’t always bereft of care. Bryan said in the 1990s, there was a program in the vocational school that awarded child care certificates to the people who staffed it. And at one point, there was a partnership with the YMCA. But that was more than a decade ago.

Bryan said they have a site in mind on existing Bath County Schools property. Startup costs would include developing the site. A small fee would be charged to the vendor once they’re up and running.

“We’re still waiting on a contractor to get back to use with an estimate on that. Hooking up the water, the sewer, the electric,” Bryan explained. “That would be minimal because we’re lucky the public service authority has agreed to partner with us and only charge us for their parts and not the labor, so we’re lucky there.”

Nothing is set and stone and nothing would move forward without a Board of Supervisors vote.

“Nothing’s been decided,” she said. “We’re in the information gathering and in the next few months we’ll be very transparent as to what we find out before any votes are taken by the Board of Supervisors.”

In the meantime, Baker said she’s making it work. She understands why some may be opposed to seeing their tax dollars spent this way, but says she’s just trying to make it work to stay in the place she loves.

“I love it like they do. I wanna see it succeed like they do. So it really to me doesn’t have to be this one side versus the other kind of thing. It could be a team effort, and you know we could all be working together for the betterment of not just these little families who need the resources but for the community overall.”

The County is expected to share more information on the idea at a board meeting sometime in September.

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