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New education program being created to address early child care desert

New education program being created to address early child care desert

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The Lynchburg-based nonprofit HumanKind is gearing up to launch a new program next year that will help address the early child care desert in the area.

The Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy organization, defines a child care desert as a community where there is a ratio of 3:1 children for every licensed child care slot.

The total capacity for 0- to 3-year-olds at licensed child care services is 344 children in Lynchburg, 112 children in Amherst County and 106 in Bedford County. That's according to research done by HumanKind involving data from the Virginia Department of Social Services, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Kids Count Data Center and phone calls to all licensed providers to determine actual capacity by age.

But according to that same research, there are 2,866 children ages 0 to 3 in Lynchburg, 1,025 in Amherst County and 2,245 in Bedford County. Those figures work out to ratios of roughly 8:1, 9:1 and 21:1, respectively.

Once open next year, the new program, named Early Head Start, will provide support for parents and free, full time child care for 80 infants and toddlers under the age of 3 in Lynchburg and in Amherst  and Bedford counties. 

EHS is a federally funded program of the Administration for Children and Families which supports 80% of program operation. The remaining 20% is funded by local support from donors, sponsors, foundations and volunteers.

“We have always known that the greatest need in our community is high quality, affordable, accessible child care for infants and toddlers,” Ashley Graham, director of Family and Children Services at HumanKind, said. “We have a significant infant and toddler child care desert in our region. But for preschool-aged children, we're actually doing pretty well because there are so many programs and options for families.”

Other groups eligible regardless of income include include foster children, homeless children and families receiving public assistance regardless of income. Children with documented disabilities may be eligible regardless of income as well as families who meet income eligibility as determined by federal poverty guidelines. 

Sarah Quarantotto, executive director of Miriam’s House, said each year the Lynchburg area serves approximately 73 homeless children between the ages of 0 and 3 and one of the greatest barriers their parents have to employment is reliable child care.

“This opportunity to have access to reliable, affordable child care means that these families will have the opportunity to gain a steady source of income to afford housing costs,” she said. “We are so excited that this service is coming available in our community."

Though both are federally funded programs supporting families with young children, Graham said the biggest difference between EHS and Head Start, a program run by Lynchburg Community Action Group, is that Head Start serves children between 3 and 4 years of age.

Amherst, Bedford, and Lynchburg public schools serve children between 4 and 5 years of age in their pre-kindergarten programs.

Karen Wesley, director of Smart Beginnings Central Virginia, which is an initiative of the United Way of Central Virginia, said she is pleased that EHS will be launched in the region, where a clear gap in services for infant care has long been identified.

“The recent loss of childcare programs due to the pandemic has increased the need for this program,” she said. “The Early Head Start program through HumanKind will help to create a cohesive education readiness system, providing continuous support for children from birth to age three, at which time they will easily transition to Head Start before enrolling in Kindergarten. The EHS program is an important and much needed component of an early childhood education system that prepares children for success in school, and in life.”

Enrollment for EHS will open next month and applications can be found on the HumanKind website, www.humankind.org.

HumanKind is in the process of finalizing three locations, with one in the town of Amherst, one near the town of Bedford, and another in Lynchburg. Graham said when those locations are secured and classrooms are ready to open, a staff of 30 teachers will begin providing child care. This could be early as January 2021 in some locations.

The program also will have a position focused on health and disabilities, an education manager who is focused on the professional development of all of the education staff as well as staff focused on family engagement and family support. 

In the meantime, teachers will provide virtual support and instruction as well as home delivery of diapers, wipes and materials for children’s activities.

“So what's really unique and really impactful about this model is that it's not just focused on child care for the children, it is focused on supporting the children, their families, all of the employees, and the broader community,” Graham said. “So it's a really holistic program. It's not just focused on education, it's focused on health, mental health, nutrition and access to resources. It's really just a holistic approach to families and early childhood educators in our community.”

Early Head Start is licensed by the Virginia Department of Social Services and meets its guidelines for operating child care during COVID-19, Graham said.

She said if parents are uncomfortable with their child attending in-person care, they can participate in virtual Early Head Start services.

The program is free during the instructional hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Before and after care is available to families who qualify for Virginia’s Child Care Subsidy Program, which may require co-pays.

Jane Gerdy, executive director of Elizabeth’s Early Learning Center, said not only does the program provide quality care and education for infants and toddlers but it also provides support and education for their families.

“I hope this will be the beginning of more investment in early childhood education in this area,” she said. “While Early Head Start is preparing to open, several other early learning centers in Central Virginia have closed down this year, leaving even more families without child care and early education for their children.”

She said not all children in Lynchburg will be eligible for Head Start programs and there is still a need in the community for more high-quality programs for all children.

“It is important that the Lynchburg community celebrate this new opportunity while continuing to prioritize and support much-needed early childhood education for our youngest citizens,” she said.

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