In creating a road to the best possible New River Valley, Virginia Tech’s leadership wants to ensure a critical aspect is not overlooked.

“We don’t want child care to be the pothole in the road that derails our progress,” said President Tim Sands during his opening remarks at the NRV Childcare Summit, last week.

Sands said the success of both the university and employers throughout the region depend on recruiting and retaining talent, and the availability of child care is essential to that process.

In the hope of advancing a collective effort, Sands invited leaders of the New River Valley’s top 50 employers, education institutions, and municipalities to come together and discuss the current child care environment and its impact on the region.

“We can take great pride, I think, in the way the New River Valley came together as a region to address the pandemic. I believe a regional, collaborative approach to child care will be much more effective than each of us working in isolation,” Sands said.

For more than two hours the group heard from professionals working in a variety of efforts related to early childhood education and worked together to identify overarching problems, hurdles, and potential solutions.

“The good news is that we really do have some good leadership here in the New River Valley and a tradition of collaboration in order to address these kinds of challenges,” said Jessica Wirgau, CEO of the Community Foundation of the New River Valley.

The summit was an outgrowth of the university’s child care working group, which was established in 2018 with the goal of improving quality, access, affordability, and flexibility of child care not just at Virginia Tech, but also within the surrounding communities. As a part of that effort, Kim Thomason joined the university as the program manager for early childhood education initiatives last spring, and the group hosted a symposium for early childhood educators in May.

Thomason shared with the group a snapshot of the current child care situation across by the country and the New River Valley. She said nationally, 80 percent of child care providers report staffing shortages and facilities in the New River Valley were collectively only operating at a third of their capacity, resulting in a gap in potential service to almost 7,000 children. For Montgomery County alone that means estimated losses of $38 million in family revenue, $13 million in business revenue, and $7 million in tax revenue, each year.

Kristi Snyder, program manager at the Blacksburg-based Rainbow Riders Childcare Center, said the provider currently has more than 1,200 children on a wait list to attend and are adding 10-15 new names each week.

“The problem is we have a huge gap because we don’t have the teachers,” Snyder said. “The demand is huge. The ability to provide the supply is problematic because of that staff shortage…We’re not talking about babysitters here, we’re talking about early childhood professionals that are not only caring for our youngest citizens, they’re also educating them and helping them prepare for the next stage of their educational life.”

The gap in available service is causing one in three women across the country to consider leaving or changing jobs, Thomason said. At Virginia Tech alone that could be as many as 1,600 people.

A host of challenges stand in the way of increasing the availability and quality of child care in the New River Valley. They include recruiting and retaining well-trained and experienced educators, balancing wages with affordability for working families, increasing easily accessible locations throughout the region, and creating options for people with non-traditional work schedules.

The leaders representing various sectors worked together to begin to think through possible actions to overcome these challenges. They discussed existing efforts, such as ongoing public-private partnerships and employer-run centers, and explored different ideas that might create a workforce pipeline.

“The biggest take away for me was there is a strong desire to collaborate across the region working toward creative solutions to address the most pressing challenge, developing a workforce pipeline for people to fill the critical jobs in this sector,” said Kevin Byrd, executive director, New River Valley Regional Commission. “It is encouraging to see President Sands initiate the conversation because we believe future solutions will require partnerships between employers, child care providers and many other partners.”

More conversations and events will be planned in the near future.

“We currently have a window of opportunity to stabilize child care in the New River Valley through our local collaboration, but the window is truly closing fast,” Thomason said.


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