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HUNTINGTON — As students in Cabell County prepare to head back to the classroom next week — virtually or two days a week, that is — working families are now faced with a slew of decisions regarding child care.

In April, the state opened applications for child-care assistance to all essential workers, regardless of income level, through Link Child Care Resource and Referral.

Last week, that benefit came to an end, but the state backtracked on the decision Tuesday, according to Cristie Dunbar, executive director of Link Child Care Resource and Referral. This means all essential workers making too much annually to qualify will still be eligible for assistance as children return to school, a major stress relief for some families.

“While we would not qualify for an income-based Link application, I was thrilled with the creation of an ‘essential worker version’ — something that would help take a bit of the burden from us,” said Jaye Toler, a parent of three children who, along with her husband, never had the option to stay home during the pandemic.

When schools closed their doors in the spring and children were sent home to partake in remote curriculum, Toler said having child-care assistance was a huge benefit.

“While we never got a break from working, we also have the additional costs of PPE, extra laundry detergent — the extra necessities that COVID sprung on us,” she said. “Having child care available was a huge relief to us; making it subsidized and paid for, that’s a pure blessing.”

After an influx of new cases from essential workers in March, Dunbar said Link has experienced a significant decrease in people applying for the assistance.

And although the first week of the “new normal” school year is near, some day-care facilities are still reporting low enrollment.

Tia “Fix” Rumbaugh, founder of So Social LLC, a Montessori-environment day-care facility in Huntington, said the center has a maximum capacity of about 12 children — something that was once a constraint. Now, she said, the facility is struggling to remain sustainable.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges of child care: It’s not about making lots of money, it’s one of those jobs where you do it because you love working with children,” she said. “But unfortunately that leaves us with very tight margins.”

Rumbaugh said they have two clients registered for care as the school year nears, but she hopes when families receive further guidance on what virtual learning will look like that enrollment will increase.

“One of the consequences is that not everyone really needs child care because so many grandparents and family members are able to stay home — a lot of people are stepping up to help families who need help,” she said. “We have lots of space right now, and that’s what I’m hearing from everybody. I think it speaks to people prioritizing their health and the safety of their loved ones, but also possibly the economic impact where people have been laid off.”

So Social’s environment is designed for younger children, but the facility will also offer assistance for elementary-aged students with their classwork beginning next week, Rumbaugh said.

Dunbar said Link does not yet have definite answers for families with school-age children, and they have not received guidance from the state regarding how child care will change for those students.

Some day-care centers in Cabell County have already taken on the task of serving children who will be learning in the blended or virtual models.

River Valley Child Development Services in Huntington announced an All-Day Release (ADR) child-care program to help families who need support in their child’s remote learning with flexible hours Monday through Friday.

The program makes time for the child’s schoolwork in their schedule each day, and those who qualify for Link aid can use it at the ADR program as well as the So Social facility.

And while some may be able to keep their kids at home and assist with virtual learning themselves, Toler said she and her husband, a police officer, work opposite shifts and must “juggle the chaos as it comes,” making child care a must.

“Child care, in my opinion, is one of our country’s major issues. It transcends across all walks of life,” Toler said. “The fact that most families are now a two-income, working outside of the home, pre-COVID dynamic, means that we need access to quality, affordable child-care options.”

Dunbar said Tuesday there is no time frame for how long the renewal of the essential worker Link assistance will be in effect. Those interested in applying can visit www.linkccrr.org for more information.

Follow reporter Hanna Pennington via Twitter @hpennHD.