Returning to classrooms for schoolchildren across the country has not meant a return to work for many of their parents who, with workdays lasting longer than schooldays, find after-school programs crucial are rare.
School providers cite difficulties hiring and retaining staff as the main reasons they haven’t fully rebounded from pandemic closures and they say they’re as frustrated as the parents they’re turning down.
“We are in a constant state of flux. We will hire one staff member and another will resign,” said Ester Buendia, assistant director of after-school programs at the Northside Independent School District in Texas. “We just haven’t been able to catch up this year.”
Before the pandemic, the San Antonio District after-school program had 1,000 staff members serving more than 7,000 students in its roughly 100 elementary and middle schools. Today, there are less than half that number of staff supervising approximately 3,300 students. More than 1,100 students are on waiting lists for the program, called Learning Tree, which provides academic, recreational and social enrichment until 6:30 p.m. each school day.
It is difficult to determine how many parents of school-aged children were unable to return to work outside the home due to gaps in available child care. But surveys point to a cycle of parents, mostly mothers, staying home for their children because they are unable to find after-school programs, which then results in staffing shortages in those programs that rely heavily on women to manage them.
“There’s no question that these after-school programs — the lack of after-school programs at this point — are particularly limiting the ability of women to re-enter the workforce,” said Jen Rinehart, vice president of strategy and programming from the non-profit organization Afterschool. Alliance, which is working to increase programming.
“If women don’t go back into the workforce, we don’t have the staff we need for those after-school opportunities, so it’s all very tangled up,” she said.
A survey by the Afterschool Alliance found that a record 24.6 million children did not have access to a program at the end of 2021, although cost as well as availability was a barrier. Of more than 1,000 program providers surveyed, 54% had waiting lists, a significantly higher percentage than in the past.
Wells Fargo reported that labor shortages in child care, where women make up 96% of the workforce, are more acute than in other industries that are also struggling. to find reliable employees. Employment was 12.4% below its pre-COVID-19 level in early March, leaving about 460,000 families forced to make other arrangements, analysts concluded.
“Access to affordable childcare has been repeatedly shown to boost mothers’ labor force participation,” the report says.
A Census Bureau data poll in January found that 6% of parents of children ages 5 to 11 were out of work because a child was out of school or daycare. Data analyzed by the Pew Research Center found that in the last quarter of 2021, 6% fewer jobs were held by parents of children aged 5 to 12.
Erica Gonzalez of San Antonio secured after-school spots for her second- and sixth-grade daughters after entering the school year on waiting lists. This allowed her to maintain her schedule at the non-profit where she works and her husband, a teacher, to coach her as well.
Anticipating a crush on seats, Gonzalez had made sure to enroll her children in Learning Tree as soon as possible and she stayed in touch with their schools as each child increased the waiting lists.
“We were really hoping and praying for spots to open up for them and luckily they did,” Gonzalez said.
Without the program, Gonzalez said she and her husband would have had to figure out how to get their daughters from their schools to her husband to wait for him to finish his work.
“I probably should have changed my schedule to pick them up, drop them off and get back to work,” she said. “We would have figured something out, but it certainly would have been a challenge.”
Rico X said the before and after school programs he oversees at the YMCA of Middle Tennessee have had to limit enrollment due to understaffing, leaving capacity at about 70% of what it was before the pandemic. One of its 105 sites accommodated up to 85 students; now it’s under 60.
“At some of our waitlist sites, we have parents who are just desperate,” he said, “and we can’t really do much unless there’s a place that’s there.” frees.”
The YMCA, which sends staff to schools to run the programs, is considering another pay raise in hopes of attracting more applicants, he said. The supplier has already raised the minimum wage for site managers from $13 to $16 per hour and has given other employees a raise of $2 per hour to $13.
“For a good part of our families, it is a lifeline for them, and it gives them the opportunity to be able to work but also to have the peace of mind that their children are in a safe and engaging environment. C is a 100% lifesaver,” X said.
The Afterschool Alliance survey found that 71% of programs had taken steps to attract and retain staff. The most common was to raise wages, in some cases using federal pandemic relief money in the form of child care stabilization grants. Some have also offered free childcare to employees as well as signing bonuses or paid time off.
“We entered the pandemic with a huge unmet demand for after-school and summer programs and of course, like almost every other challenge, the pandemic has only made that challenge worse,” Rinehart said.
Kasey Blackburn-Jiron, expanded learning coordinator for the West Contra Costa Unified School District in California, said vendors the district relies on describe applicants skipping scheduled job interviews or even going through the process. job only to disappear after getting the job, presumably to work somewhere that pays more and asks less.
“My best guess is that we’re not paying them enough money. We’re not giving them enough hours,” said Blackburn-Jiron, who said the program now serves far fewer than the 5,000 students enrolled before the pandemic.
“We’re asking these people at $17, $18, $19 an hour to work miracles,” she said. “Most of them don’t have a bachelor’s degree and yet we say we want you to be an amazing youth development practitioner. You must be able to teach and model social and emotional skills. You have to be able to teach 21st century skills, you have to be able to deal with young people from generations of trauma.
She said state lawmakers recently increased funding for the program, which could lead to better pay, but the money won’t go to the programs until the end of the school year.
“Working families need school-based after-school programs, and we just haven’t been able to meet the need,” Blackburn-Jiron said, “and it’s heartbreaking.”