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Affording And Finding Child Care In Appalachia Was A Challenge Before The Pandemic — Now It’s Worse

Megan Hullinger is a single mom in Pocahontas County, W.Va. Pictured are her four children Tessa, Abby, Nathan and Gemma. It took Hullinger nearly three years to get her son Nathan into a childcare center. Her youngest is still on a waiting list.
Courtesy Megan Hullinger
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Megan Hullinger is a single mom in Pocahontas County, W.Va. Pictured are her four children Tessa, Abby, Nathan and Gemma. It took Hullinger nearly three years to get her son Nathan into a childcare center. Her youngest is still on a waiting list.

Right now, Congress is debating spending trillions of dollars to boost the country’s infrastructure. That covers roads and bridges, of course, but also what’s being called “soft infrastructure” — things like childcare.

During the pandemic, parents have faced pressures and decisions unlike any before in human history. How do you balance it all, and maintain positivity, in the midst of all these challenges? For many mothers, we’re not just talking about parenting questions — but also how to balance that against work.

This week on Inside Appalachia, we meet parents like Megan Hullinger, a single mom with four kids in Pocahontas County. It took her nearly three years to get a spot at a childcare center for her son Nathan.

Also in this episode, we’ll hear how indigenous people whose ancestors were forced out of Appalachia are reconnecting with their food heritage through pawpaws. Joel Barnes is one of the major guardians of Shawnee culture and language in the present day. Barnes, who is a tribal member, lives in Miami, Oklahoma, and is the language and archives director for the Shawnee Tribe. Barnes said that the Shawnee marked time by phases of the moon, and they used the fruit to mark one of those phases.

"The word for pawpaw is ha'siminikiisfwa. That means pawpaw month. It's the month of September," Barnes said. "That literally means pawpaw moon. That moon would indicate that was the time the pawpaws were ripe and it was time to go pick them and probably also indicated, 'Hey, we're getting close to winter.'"

In This Episode: 

megan kruger
Emily Corio
Megan Kruger has to balance working from home and caring for her family during the pandemic.

Child Care Challenges Pre-Date Pandemic

West Virginia women have the lowest workforce participation rate in the country. Many Mountain State moms want to work, but can’t because of the lack of child care. They either can’t find child care, or they can’t afford it. Last year’s unexpected closure of schools in the spring, and then months of isolation from extended families and caregivers, put a spotlight on these issues. But as Emily Corio reports, child care challenges pre-date the pandemic.

Families Feel Pressures Of Child Care Desert

Parents in Appalachia can wait months, even years, to get their kids a space in a childcare center. It took nearly three years for Megan Hullinger to get her son, Nathan, a spot.

“It's almost impossible to get a child under the age of two into a registered center,” Hullinger said.

That’s because more than 60 percent of people in West Virginia live in a child care desert, according to the Center for American Progress. A child care desert means there are more people who need childcare than there are spots available. Inside Appalachia producer Roxy Todd spoke to parents across the state about the difficulty of finding child care close to home.

Virtual School Successes

This fall marks a school year unlike any other. Most students have a lot of catching up to do. Test scores show a lot of kids fell behind in learning last year. In the fall of 2020, one-third of K-12 students in West Virginia failed at least one core subject, according to the state Department of Education. This may be partly because many children here in West Virginia don’t have good internet access at home.

Getting everyone up to speed is going to be a challenge. But at the same time — some kids do well with virtual learning. Liz McCormick brings us this story on how the pandemic has caused some parents to rethink how their kids learn.

Elementary Students Share Pandemic Experiences

When we talk about schools, we often hear from adults — but what about kids? This week on the show, Liz McCormick talked with several children who live in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. They reflected back on the last school year and what they hope, and fear, for the years ahead.

“My name is Levi Jones. I am 7 years old. I’m going into second grade at T.A. Lowery [Elementary]. My favorite thing is math. Virtual school was a little hard, because sometimes the speaker wouldn’t work, and like almost every time, my screen wouldn’t show. Going back in-person feels good. The thing I’m looking most forward to is seeing my friends.”

 

Juvenile Justice System

We know that the experiences children have in school affect how their later lives play out. For example, students who are suspended or expelled from school are more likely to have an encounter with the juvenile justice system. West Virginia has one of the country’s highest rates of incarcerated children, six years after sweeping reforms promised to fix the juvenile justice system. What’s changed and what hasn’t? And why are so many children spending years locked up? Anya Slepyan spent this past summer reporting on the juvenile justice system in West Virginia for Mountain State Spotlight. Our producer Roxy Todd sat down with Slepyan to talk more about what she found.

Paw Paw
Joey Aloi
Pawpaw season typically beings in Mid-September and lasts into October.

PawPaw Roots

Mid-September marks the beginning of pawpaw season. The small, yellow and green fruit has a short growing season that usually lasts into October. You probably won’t find a pawpaw in a grocery store. You’ve pretty much got to go out in the woods and find them yourself, though some farmers markets do sell them. Even if they aren’t widely available today, pawpaws have been a part of the human food system in Appalachia for thousands of years. And it’s one of the foods many indigenous people lost when they were pushed off their ancestral lands. But not completely lost. As it turns out, they carried the pawpaw with them. As part of our Inside Appalachia Folkways series, Brian Koscho set out to explore the pawpaw’s indigenous roots.

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Roxy Todd is our producer. Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Caitlin Tan and Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can also send us an email to Inside Appalachia@wvpublic.org.

Mason Adams grew up near the Virginia/West Virginia border in Clifton Forge, Virginia. He’s covered mountain communities and the issues affecting them since 2001. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, Mother Jones, Huffington Post and elsewhere. He lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAtoms.
Roxy Todd joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Jade Artherhults is the associate producer for Inside Appalachia and is based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jartherhults@wvpublic.org or @JArtherhults on Twitter.