The return to classrooms for the country’s schoolchildren has meant no return to the workplace for many of their parents, who with work days surpassing the school days, and essential after-school programs are in short supply.
School-based providers cite difficulties in hiring and retaining staff as the biggest reasons they have not fully recovered from the pandemic shutdown, and they say they are just as frustrated as the parents who are turning them down.
“We are in constant change. We will hire one employee and another will leave,” said Ester Buendia, associate director of after-school programs at the Northside Independent School District in Texas. “We just couldn’t catch up this year.”
Before the pandemic, the San Antonio District’s after-school program had 1,000 employees serving more than 7,000 students at its roughly 100 elementary and middle schools. Today, less than half of the employees look after around 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 every school day until 6:30 p.m.
It’s hard to tell how many parents of school-age children have been unable to resume work outside the home because of gaps in available care. But surveys suggest that parents, mostly mothers, are staying home for their children because they can’t find an after-school program, which then leads to staffing shortages in those programs that rely heavily on women to run them.
“There’s no doubt that these after-school programs — the lack of after-school programs at this point — are limiting women in particular in re-entering the workforce,” said Jen Rinehart, vice president of strategy and programming at the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance, which is working to bring the increase programming.
“If women don’t come back into the labor market, we don’t have the staff that we need for these extracurricular opportunities, so it’s very convoluted,” she said.
A survey by Afterschool Alliance found an all-time high of 24.6 million children not accessing a program at the end of 2021, despite both cost and availability being a barrier. Of more than 1,000 program providers surveyed, 54% had waitlists, a significantly higher percentage than in the past.
Wells Fargo reported that labor shortages in childcare, where women make up 96% of the workforce, are more acute than in other industries that are also struggling to find reliable workers. Employment in early March was 12.4% below pre-COVID-19 levels, forcing an estimated 460,000 families to take alternative precautions, analysts concluded.
“Access to affordable childcare has been consistently shown to increase maternal labor force participation,” says the report.
A January Census Bureau data poll found that 6% of parents with children ages 5 to 11 are not working because a child was out of school or daycare. Data analyzed by the Pew Research Center showed that in the last quarter of 2021, 6% fewer jobs were held by parents of children aged 5 to 12.
San Antonio’s Erica Gonzalez secured after-school spots for her second- and sixth-grade daughters after starting the school year on waitlists. This allowed her to maintain her schedule at the nonprofit she works for, and her husband, a teacher, was also able to coach.
Anticipating a crush on places, Gonzalez had made sure to get her children enrolled in Learning Tree as soon as possible and stayed in touch with their schools as each child filled the waiting lists.
“We really just hoped and prayed that places would 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’s to wait for him to finish work.
“I probably should have changed my schedule to pick her up, drop her off, and come all the way back to work,” she said. “We would have thought of something, but it would definitely have been a challenge.”
Rico X said the school-based pre- and after-school programs he oversees at Middle Tennessee’s YMCA have had to limit enrollment due to staff shortages, leaving capacity at about 70% of pre-pandemic levels. One of its 105 campuses used to have as many as 85 students; now it’s less than 60.
“In some of our waitlist locations, we have some parents who are just desperate,” he said, “and there’s not a lot we can really do unless there’s a space that comes up.”
The YMCA, which sends staff to the schools to run the programs, is considering another raise in hopes of attracting more applicants, he said. The provider has already raised the minimum wage for site managers from $13 to $16 an hour and given other employees a $2 hourly increase to $13.
“For a large proportion of our families this is a lifeline 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. It’s 100% a lifeline,” said X.
The Afterschool Alliance survey found that 71% of programs had taken steps to attract and retain employees. The most common have been pay rises, in part using federal pandemic relief funds in the form of childcare stabilization grants. Some have also offered free childcare for employees, as well as signing bonuses or paid time off.
“We came into the pandemic with tremendous unmet demand for after-school and summer programs, and of course the pandemic, like almost every other challenge out there, has only made this challenge worse,” Rinehart said.
Kasey Blackburn-Jiron, extended learning coordinator for the West Contra Costa Unified School District in California, said providers the district relies on describe applicants skipping scheduled interviews or even going through the hiring process just to post-attainment of the job, presumably to work somewhere that pays more and charges 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 who were enrolled before the pandemic.
“We’re asking these $17, $18, $19 hour people to do miracles,” she told youth development practitioners. 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 who come from generations of trauma.”
She said state legislatures recently increased funding for the program, which could result in better pay, but the money won’t go into the programs until late in 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.”