A child at the Highland Children's House in Monterey. The Highland Children's House is looking into expanding into Bath County, which had no day care. Courtesy of the Highland Center.

Bath County is the only county in Virginia without a day care, according to County Administrator Ashton Harrison. That’s a problem not just for Bath, but for lots of rural areas. 

This is a nationwide issue, Harrison said, and urban and rural communities are facing some of the same challenges. 

But there are unique obstacles for rural communities when it comes to providing any kind of service, from child care to mental health resources, said Jason Miller, director of social services in Bath County, population 4,209.

“The size of our population doesn’t make it very financially beneficial for [services] to come here,” Miller said. 

Children in rural areas also have less interaction with other children, making child care even more crucial. 

“If you grow up in a city, there might be a hundred kids within two blocks. But if there’s no kids within a couple miles, so you don’t have that interaction as easy,” Miller said. “If there’s a summer program or daycare, they can continue to be around other kids and get programming.”

Pari Baker, a Bath resident who is expecting a child very soon, said she doesn’t know what she’s going to do for child care, since she and her husband both work full-time.

“I haven’t had to struggle in the way everyone else has yet, but my time is coming,” she said. “You don’t realize how big a problem it is until it affects you.”

And Bath is far from the only rural Virginia community without robust child care.

Jonathan Belcher, executive director of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, said options are lacking in the coalfield counties as well. 

“It definitely is an issue in our region as it has been for quite some time,” he said. “I would have to think it’s an issue for most of Western Virginia, and probably all of rural Virginia.”

The coalfield counties include Buchanan, Dickenson, Wise, Tazewell, Russell, Scott and Lee, as well as the city of Norton. 

VCEDA works to enhance and diversify the economy in these counties, which often means attracting new companies to the area and helping existing companies expand and create new jobs, Belcher said. 

But this is difficult without child care in place. 

“It’s hard to attract larger industries that employ a large quantity of workers without having available child care,” Belcher said. “There are companies that actually might not even consider a community if they don’t feel like the child care is sufficient, because that affects their ability to attract a workforce.”

An important economic driver, child care has been a recent topic of conversation in the coalfield counties – which, like Bath and other rural areas, are seeing population declines. 

The Reenergize Southwest Final Report, conducted by Virginia Energy, makes recommendations to the General Assembly about how to support economic transition in the coalfield counties. 

The most recent report was published in December and notes the importance of child care in the region’s economy. 

The following data is also included in the report, depicting the dearth of child care facilities in these counties. 

“The need for child care facilities in the area is well-documented,” the report says.

More reliable childcare would also positively affect employment by adding people back into the workplace, Belcher said. 

“We really need that in our region,” he said. “As we’ve had population declines, we need to maintain as many people as we can in our active workforce. Having more child care would do that.”

In fact, lack of child care is one of the biggest barriers to business and employment in Southwest Virginia, said Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia. 

“For quite a long time, economic development has really focused on having flat land, broadband, natural gas, an interstate,” Staton said. “Child care also needs to be one of those assets in economic development.”

United Way of Southwest Virginia is spearheading an initiative to address the lack of child care in this area of the state. The initiative, called Ready SWVA, is a multi-million-dollar project that will serve 21 localities, Staton said. 

“Over the next two years, we would like to bring on five new licensed regional child care centers,” he said. “One serving as a hub, four serving as the satellites.”

Ready SWVA is focused on raising money to fund these five new centers during their first 24 months of operation, and to renovate the buildings where the centers will be. 

It’s a team effort, said Staton, and community organizations, public partners, private businesses and local governments are coming together to address the need. (State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, have filed proposed amendments to the state budget to allocate $14.2 million over the two-year budget for the program out of federal relief funds.)

“If we want to get people back to work, get our jobs filled, we have to have an adequate supply of child care,” Staton said. 

And once it increases employment, there are other economic benefits to strong child care. 

“It reduces absenteeism in the workplace, and for families looking to relocate, reliable child care being available is a large factor they consider,” said Callie Smith, founding director of Highland Children’s House in Monterey. 

Smith founded the nonprofit with her husband, Eric, the organization’s bookkeeper, in 2018 to meet child care needs in their area. 

“We read a newspaper article, and the heading was ‘Highland County parents desperate for child care,’” Smith said. 

New to the area, Smith said the couple thought meeting a child care need would be a good way to get to know people and be of assistance in the community. 

Smith, a preschool teacher of 30 years, has a staff of nine teachers that offer care for children aged 6 weeks to 12 years. The organization provides care throughout the summer, after school hours and even on snow days to assist working families.

The organization is interested in expanding to Bath County and opening a center there, Smith said. 

“I’ve had several families from Bath contact me looking for child care,” she said. “One family actually does drive all the way from Bath to Highland, because we are the only suitable child care that meets their needs.”

But this expansion likely won’t be complete in time to help Baker with her child care needs. 

“We don’t know what we’re going to do if the day care doesn’t open in the next couple of months,” Baker said. “And I’m trying not to hitch my wagon to that as a certainty.”

Baker said she has friends in Bath who are also expecting, and child care is a “continuous question mark” for all of them.

Especially during the pandemic, Smith said she has seen an increase in demand among working families due to school closures. 

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected mothers’ paid labor, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, as more women have stayed home to care for children. 

About 10 million mothers with school-aged children were not working in January 2021. This number is about 1.4 million higher than in January 2020, according to census data. 

The pandemic has exacerbated demand in Bath, too, Harrison said. 

“There was always a need, even before COVID,” he said. “COVID just shined a big spotlight on it.”

The first obstacle is finding a space for the Bath center, Smith said. Licensed child care facilities often run into location challenges because of a plethora of building requirements concerning things like asbestos, lead and direct egress. 

If Bath can provide a qualified facility, private vendors like Highland Children’s House are more likely to expand their services to the county, Harrison and Miller said. 

“If you build it, they will come,” Miller said. 

Constructing a new facility would likely be cheaper and better quality than retrofitting an old building, Harrison said. 

Bath County and Highland Children’s House are still in the early stages of this process, but the interest is there on both sides, Smith said. 

A private sector vendor, like Highland Children’s House, will likely be the best way to provide child care in Bath, Harrison said. He emphasized the value of “people who already have the skills and the knowledge” of the industry. 

Growth is one of the county’s goals, Miller said, and introducing child care would advance that. Like most rural areas, Bath’s population is declining and getting older, which is affecting its economy.

Of the 4,119 residents in Bath, only 621 are under age 18. 

“Child care is a selling point to the business community and the county,” Miller said. “It’s what people look for when they come to an area.”

Bath conducted a four-week survey to gauge demand for a child care center, which was open to both residents and people who commuted to the county for work. The survey garnered 128 responses before it closed Jan. 21. 

“The demand is greater than what I had expected, quite a bit more,” Harrison. 

According to the survey, more than 260 children would be enrolled in Bath child care services if they existed. This includes 104 children aged 6 weeks to 3 years, 58 children aged 3 to 5 years, and 102 children older than 5.

Bath residents have been waiting for a survey like this, Miller said.

“When [the survey] came out, they took the opportunity to have their voices heard,” he said. “This is more urgent than we thought. We knew there was a need, but now we know there’s an immediate need.”

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.