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Dr. Jamie Jeffrey

Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, pediatrician, WVU-Charleston, testifies on how West Virginia can improve early childhood education and child care to the Joint Health Committee on Sunday in Charleston.

CHARLESTON — The motto of the West Virginia Republican Party is to make West Virginia a better place to live, work and raise a family. Advocates say West Virginia can accomplish that now by taking advantage of the federal American Rescue Plan to make long-lasting changes to the state’s struggling early childhood education system.

Currently, 64% of West Virginians live in a child-care desert, said Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, pediatrician and associate clinical professor of pediatrics, WVU-Charleston, and early childhood education advocate. Jeffrey and other advocates testified to the Joint Committee on Health on Sunday, providing recommendations from the “Survive COVID and Thrive Tomorrow Child Care Policy Group.”

For those who do have access to child care, the average cost for one child for a year is more than the average cost of tuition at West Virginia University.

“During the pandemic, we really learned the need for child care,” Jeffrey said. “We learned it truly was an ‘essential’ service.”

The American Rescue Plan, signed into law March 11, appropriated funding for child care through three funding streams: two pools of one-time supplemental and stability funds, and a new permanent fund. West Virginia is set to receive more than $260 million.

“We need to use our funds to create lasting infrastructure,” Jeffrey said. “It’s a great scenario to be in because the money is coming in. We just have to have a plan.”

The coalition has five main recommendations.

First, support families by raising the income eligibility to receive child-care subsidies.

Helen Post-Brown, director of Sunbeam Early Learning Center in Fairmont, said both the entry level and exit level need to be raised.

In her experience, she has seen families be kicked off the subsidy because they got a raise at work, but the raise is not enough to cover the loss of the subsidy.

Second, the coalition suggests paying child-care providers based on children’s enrollment versus daily attendance.

Currently, most providers are paid only if a child attends. That means if a child is sick, the center gets no payment, but the teacher in the classroom still goes to work and needs to get paid, said Post-Brown.

She said when her facility changed to getting paid by enrollment, they were able to make changes to their playground, for example.

She said it was a game-changer to have that steady revenue.

This goes in line with providing more support for higher salaries for child-care workers. The average child-care worker is paid $10 an hour, which is a hard sell for most employees, but especially those with early childhood education bachelor’s degrees.

The coalition also wants to incentivize higher tiers of service provided and provide funds to expand existing facilities and build new ones.

Meghan Hullinger testified she lives in one of the child-care deserts in the state. A single mother of four, only one of her children is in a licensed child-care facility.

Two others are on waiting lists, one for six months from now.

For now, they are with a regular babysitter, which deprives them of the structure, the lessons, the outdoor play and the socialization day care provides.

“I’ve experienced job loss and loss of opportunities because of the lack of child care,” Hullinger said.

A former child-care worker herself, Hullinger said the state should invest in training for more child-care homes, which could particularly help fill the gaps in more rural areas of the state.

“We are counting on our elected officials to help our families,” Hullinger said. “We should not be last in helping our families and protecting our children.”

Taylor Stuck is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, covering state government, health and higher education. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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