BLACKSBURG — The town has decided to award approximately $1.1 million to an initiative under the Community Foundation of the New River Valley to help grow the area’s child care workforce, the nonprofit announced this past week.
CFNRV was one of several local organizations this year that proposed projects to be funded by money Blacksburg received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
The initiative under the CFNRV is called First Steps, which is described as a network of more than 60 New River Valley organizations working to support young children and families.
The organization said in its recent announcement that child care providers, public school officials, social service and health care organizations work together to share information about services available to children and families in the region. The organization said those various groups work to bring attention to the importance of early childhood education and to support the early education and development workforce.
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ARPA was one of several measures approved by the federal government during the pandemic that aimed to provide relief to local governments, families and other entities.
CFNRV noted the effects of the global health crisis on the early education workforce in both the New River Valley and the rest of the country, an issue the organization says has become far more dire as the region emerges from the pandemic.
The organization referenced a recent survey of regional providers that it said found child care centers are operating at roughly one-third of their licensed capacity due to a lack of qualified teachers and support staff. That problem, the organization said, has left nearly 7,000 children who range from infants to 6 years old without access to care.
The organization said the issue has led to the closing of individual classrooms or the modification of hours to meet state licensing requirements for student-teacher ratios. The organization also pointed to the exceptional challenges in recruiting new workers to the field.
“Despite raising starting salaries several times over the last two years, early educators earn far less than those in retail and office jobs,” reads a portion of the First Steps announcement. “Low pay, limited benefits and the persistent misperception that child care providers are merely ‘babysitters,’ rather than trained educators, has made recruitment and retention difficult.”
The starting salaries challenge is one that has affected the town of Blacksburg, which recently enacted a payroll measure intended to address the labor challenges that surfaced during the pandemic.
“The challenges with recruiting are many,” said Judy Shelor, center director of the Blacksburg-based Valley Interfaith Child Care Center. “A few of them are wage inequality, increasing educational opportunities and competing with retail establishments for workers. We are committed to offering our staff a living wage, supporting educational opportunities and elevating the professional status of early childhood education, all while providing high-quality care that is affordable to the families we serve.”
CFNRV said in its announcement that the lack of qualified educators has had a “profound impact” on many employers and has forced parents to leave the workforce due to either unavailable or inconsistent care. The organization cited the Virginia Promise Partnership, which it said has looked at the negative financial impact of inadequate childcare on areas such as family income and local tax revenue.
CFNRV said the ARPA funds under First Steps will be used to pilot a program over the next four years focused on retaining early educators and building the workforce pipeline. Major program components, the organization said, will include stipends to educators based on their length of service and credentials and scholarships and job placement services for high school and college students pursuing careers in early education.
Those program components will also include outreach to area employers to create public-private partnerships that keep child care accessible and affordable, CFNRV said.
The town of Blacksburg received praise for its investment in early care and education.
“The town is laying the essential groundwork that will facilitate additional public and private partnerships in order to stabilize and grow quality early care and education for working families in the [New River Valley],” said Karen Gallagher, director of the Child Development Center for Learning and Research at Virginia Tech.
CFNRV said First Steps hopes to secure additional private and public funding to expand the program beyond Blacksburg in the future.