Despite Harrisonburg’s status as a ‘childcare desert,’ day care providers’ expansion plans keep getting sent to time-outs

By Ian Munro, contributor

Amber Hess and Justice Kreider of Creative Hearts Daycare have two locations serving four children at each and a waiting list bursting with names of families who need someone to watch and teach their children during work days.

So Hess and Kreider decided to combine their operations into a larger townhouse at 661 Northfield Court, which would create what’s considered a “major family day home.” That designation would allow for up to 12 children if the operators are licensed with the Virginia Department of Social Services.

During a Harrisonburg City Council meeting on Sept. 11, city officials said they couldn’t remember the council ever granting a permit for a daycare center at a townhouse, citing, in part, traffic and safety concerns around townhouse developments. At their first attempt to get a special use permit, city council members debated whether to break that trend. And ultimately at the Sept. 11 meeting when the issue was discussed, city council voted to grant the permit.

The council members acknowledged a lack of available and affordable child care for Harrisonburg families. And while Hess and Kreider, cleared a key hurdle, the win was short-lived. 

The homeowners’ association in the neighborhood rejected their request to move forward with the major family day home.

“We had this whole presentation, but ultimately people had already sent in their absentee votes that said ‘no,’” Hess said.

Their saga has underscored the complex process day care providers must navigate to create more spots for children, as working families across Harrisonburg and beyond scramble to find safe places — and the money — to send their children during workdays.

Even after starting to look at a new spot, they’ve run into trouble.

“It’s just a nightmare. We have eight kids and a ridiculously long wait list, and we can’t move, and we can’t get licensed,” she said. 

According to the Center for American Progress, more than 217,000 children under 5 in Virginia live in what’s called a child care desert in which the available day care slots are scarce. Suburban areas are better situated to handle the demand, the report said, but areas further away from cities like Richmond and Washington, D.C., are childcare deserts. 

Start-up day care owners

Winning approval from homeowners’ associations is one of several steps that child care providers must take to legally run a child care business in the city.

Pamela Houck, a child care specialist of Child Care Aware — a Sentara Regional Medical Health program, works with potential business owners to navigate the child care regulatory landscape. She has seen demand skyrocket while numerous hurdles prevent new and existing childcare providers from expanding to meet it.  

“People are desperate for childcare,” Houck said. “And people are trying to meet the need, but it’s very hard for people to say, ‘No I’m sorry, I can’t keep five children [due to regulations].’”

Houck worked with Hess and Kreider to try to win approval for their major family day home at the Northfield Court address.

“It’s just learning the different protocols for the different areas,” Houck said about the homeowners’ association’s decision against the daycare facility.

Long, long waiting lists

With more children in need of daycare than spots available, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County child care wait lists are long.

“Some parents don’t realize you have to start looking as soon as you know you’re pregnant,” said Ramona Shenk, the Director of Harrisonburg’s Minnieland Academy. “Our infant room is large, its 16 capacity. I won’t have anything until June, and at this point I have two openings in June and then nothing again until August, I might have one.”

More than 69% of children under six in Harrisonburg and 68% in Rockingham County live in households in which all parents work, according to a Kids Count Data Center study. In Virginia, children are eligible to enroll in kindergarten if they turn 5 by September 30 of that school year.

Shenk said throughout her career, the demand has always been high, especially for infants. But in Harrisonburg, parents and guardians just don’t have many choices.  

“I have been at Minnieland for 24 years, and it’s always been like this,” she said. “In Richmond and Northern Virginia, you have pretty much some sort of childcare center on every block, so there’s a lot more choices, Harrisonburg just doesn’t have as many.”

And it’s not as if the scarcity of spots has created an increased pay for childcare workers, Shenk said.

“This sounds terrible, but there’s not a profit in infant care,” she said.

The average Virginia child care worker has an average income of $23,820 per year, according to this 2018 Child Care Aware Virginia fact sheet.

Daycare isn’t cheap

That leads to another roadblock for daycare operators. Because of myriad regulations, which are aimed at keeping children safe, running child care businesses for younger populations is more expensive. More adults are needed for fewer children the younger they are. Thus, it is much more cost effective to run child care businesses for older children, 4-year-olds for example, instead of for children under 16-months.

“You just aren’t going to make as much money, that’s why places just aren’t choosing to go through all the requirements,” Shenk said. “It’s sad. I’d have a whole building of babies if I could.”

Kathryn Morris, the executive director of the Roberta Webb Child Care Center, a United Way agency, said it is able to provide childcare to parents who would not otherwise be able to afford it through a “sliding scale” system. The “sliding scale” is based on the parents’ income, and United Way provides money to make up the difference.

“I can say I know for sure a huge percentage of our families would not be here if it wasn’t for the sliding scale,” Morris said. “Even with us offering a sliding pay scale, it’s still very difficult for a lot of our families to pay for it. And the top of our pay scale is cheaper than almost all the other day care centers.”

“In a whole year, maybe one or two families are paying at the top of the scale. Affordability is a huge concern for parents,” she said.

More than 60% of Harrisonburg’s population meets the standard for asset-limited, income-constrained, employed, otherwise known as working poor, according to the 2017 United Way ALICE Report.

“We see a lot of our parents going to city school for free Pre-K because they can’t afford childcare,” Morris said.  

Sharon Shuttle, the Director of Early Learning & Smart Beginnings of the Harrisonburg City Public Schools, said the schools are trying to put together information “and share that all around the city to figure out we can do as the city to help resolve this issue [of affordable child care]”

“We have been very proactive in Harrisonburg in trying to increase the number of children that we are serving in private settings over the past several years as we became aware this was starting to become a problem,” she said.

Shuttle said about 18% of state-funded pre-schoolers are in private settings, such as at Roberta Webb Child Care Center, Harrisonburg Rockingham Child Care Center and JMU’s Young Children Program. Funding for this comes from various sources, such as the Virginia Preschool Initiative, which gives scholarships to private centers.

“Most centers will have more four year olds in their programs and that money can subsidize the cost of the infants,” Shuttle said. Thus it is in the city’s best interest to actually encourage children on the cusp of kindergarten into private care centers to help keep infant and toddler care prices down.

“We’re looking at how other states and localities are doing this to make it economically viable,” Shuttle said. “We do have a Smart Beginnings leadership council and we are working on developing a business task force to look at this as well.”

Businesses also have a stake in child care, as working parents are naturally affected by price, availability and location of child care, Shuttle said.  

“We are going to be unveiling some ideas that we have, but first we have to collect the good data so that we have all the right information,” she added.

That information includes number spaces available in Harrisonburg and Rockingham, who’s filling those spaces and why other children are not filling those spaces in daycares, and going to kindergarten without any prior time in a learning environment.

“I’m interested in people calling me and if they want to be a part of that,” she said.

Those interested in sharing that information for that can reach Sharon Shuttle at 540-801-5610 or by email at sshuttle@harrisonburg.k12.va.us.

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