Child care is increasingly hard to find. Photo courtesy of United Way of Southwest Virginia.

More than $1 million in grant funding announced Monday for Ready SWVA – an effort announced a year ago to help stem the child care gap in the region so parents can work – will be used to train workers to serve as assistant teachers in day care facilities, according to Travis Staton, CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia.

Child care agencies are having the same problems finding workers that other businesses are experiencing these days, he said.

“In order to increase the child care supply, not only do we need physical space for children, those operators have to have the workforce themselves. So, over the next 24 months, we’re going to be working across our region with numerous early child care providers to help them find recruits and train workers that can enter the early childhood space and serve as assistant teachers and be trained up to teachers and lead instructors,” he said.

The goal is to recruit about 100 new teachers over the next two years, Staton added.

The $1.24 million in funding was announced by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“Finding quality, affordable and available childcare options for working families in Virginia has been an enduring challenge,” Youngkin said. “Expanding access to providers while strengthening the current network is a necessary step in the right direction.”  

Last December, the Ready SWVA initiative was announced in a news conference that drew more than 150 leaders from the region’s public, private and social sectors.

The effort was described as an economic development project aimed at boosting workforce development by creating an early childhood system that will expand access to affordable child care, strengthen the network of providers and build a cohort of professional early childhood educators.

Staton said then that the need is great and noted that the gap between available child care slots and the need is more than twice as great in rural Virginia communities, 20.4%, compared to 9.3% in urban Virginia.

Lack of access to affordable day care is a reason why Southwest Virginia employers are losing young employees, Staton said then.

Much progress has been made with the program over the last year, he said. Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, and Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, put in budget amendments to help fund the program, and in July, $3.5 million was awarded to the effort, Staton said.

In the five months since then, those involved have been looking at facilities that could be available for day care centers and talking to companies that could operate those facilities.

The program covers 17 counties and four cities.

The plan is for the program to operate as a “hub and spoke model” across Southwest Virginia with the hub likely a facility in the Washington County area. That hub will provide day care for children, help provide services for more than 200 child care operators across the region and be a training facility.

The money is funded through a U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration grant.

Last Thursday, as part of his proposed amendments to the two-year state budget, the governor called for $20 million to support a pilot program for public-private delivery of preschool services for at-risk children in the LENOWISCO and Crater planning districts.

According to the related bill, the funds would be administered as a formula grant “based on unmet family demand” as long as the programs provide high quality, full-day services all year around.”

Staton said Monday that the initiative is separate from Ready SWVA, but would enhance its efforts.

If approved, it would provide tuition assistance to low-income families and children with disabilities who can’t afford child care, he said.

“So, all of these are moving components,” he said. “When you think about Ready SWVA, it’s a system and what we’re investing in is not just one piece of that system. We’re investing in several components of the system so that all of them have the capacity to work together to seamlessly expand accessible, quality, affordable child care.”

Child care means parents can go back to work, but it also helps the child and the future workforce, Staton said.

“Child care, itself, is investing in tomorrow’s workforce, because more children that have high quality child care experiences are going to come to kindergarten more prepared and ready to succeed. And ultimately, we’re going to win on that front, too, when our children do better in school.”

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...