After-school programs struggle with staff shortages

The return to classrooms for the country’s schoolchildren has meant no return to work for many of their parents, who are with workdays that outlast school days, and after-school programs are in short supply.

School-based providers cite difficulties hiring and retaining staff as top reasons they haven’t fully recovered from the pandemic shutdown, and they say they’re just as frustrated as the parents who turn 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.

Surveys suggest that parents, mostly mothers, stay home for their children because they cannot find an after-school program, which then leads to staffing shortages in programs that rely heavily on women to run them.

“There is no doubt that these after-school programs — the lack of after-school programs at this stage — particularly limit women’s re-entry into the workforce,” said Jen Rinehart, vice president of strategy and programming at the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance, which is working to make that happen to expand the program.

“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.

An Afterschool Alliance survey 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 are more acute in childcare, where women make up 96% of the workforce, than in other industries that are also struggling to find reliable employees. 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.

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 its pre-pandemic level. 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 action 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 said. “Most of you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, and yet we want you to be a great 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 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.”

Leave a Comment