Long waiting lists for after-school care as programs struggle to find workers and demand soars

With the first day of school in Chicago Public Schools fast approaching, the directors of the Carole Robertson Learning Center were desperately looking for qualified workers to staff their before- and after-school programs for students living in neighborhoods on the West Side and North of the city.

“It’s really been tough, because we’ve lost three of our six managers and the kids are going back to school soon,” said Kenny Riley, director of Out-of-School Time at the nonprofit, which has centers in the Little Village, North Lawndale and Albany Park neighborhoods.

“We have so many job openings, but we’re trying the best we can and moving as fast as we can,” said Riley, whose team oversees seven programs at the three Robertson Center locations and four CPS-based programs.

The programs, which had about 10 children on the waiting list at midweek, serve about 400 students in kindergarten through eighth grade with two models: after-school day care and a club roster.

Riley said officials have been forced to cut some of the offerings for students in the upper grades as they try to accommodate families on the waiting list and children entering kindergarten.

“There’s always been a high turnover, but now, some people are leaving to take babysitting jobs that pay them the same for taking care of one child, instead of taking care of 20 children,” Riley said.

Growing demand for before- and after-school care for Chicago-area students coincides with a major worker shortage, leaving parents and care providers scrambling to find solutions just days before the start of the year school year 2022-2023.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Washington, DC-based Afterschool Alliance, like the healthcare, hospitality, and airline industries, before- and after-school programs in the US face major challenges in recruiting , train and retain workers.

About half of Alliance survey participants reported being “extremely concerned” about staffing shortages, with 31% citing extreme concerns about “maintaining adequate staffing through health issues and new procedures.”

“We’re facing a lot of challenges, because we’ve lost so much of the workforce, and this is a tough time to get people back,” said Erik Peterson, senior vice president of policy at the Alliance.

As more employees return to work in offices this fall, the need for child care is increasing, Peterson said. “I hear from parents looking for solutions and options, and a lot of people have to make tough decisions,” she said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Brian Friedopfer and his wife never had a problem enrolling their daughter in after-school care.

Now, with school scheduled to start in less than a week, they are on a waiting list for the program at their children’s Northbrook School. They tried to enroll their fourth-grader and kindergartner as soon as online registration opened, but the program filled up in a matter of minutes, she said.

He and his wife have researched other local options for before- and after-school care, but they too are either full or cost much more than the school’s program, he said. They have explored the possibility of hiring a babysitter, “but it’s almost impossible to find a part-time babysitter for one hour in the morning and two hours in the afternoon,” Friedopfer said.

Friedopfer travels frequently for work and his wife is a nurse and doesn’t have much flexibility in her schedule.

“I really hope we get in,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do at this point. I don’t know what other people do when both parents work full time.”

On Wednesday, officials with Illinois-based ACT Now, After School for Children and Teens, said the after-school workforce statewide and across the country “is facing an unprecedented staffing crisis.” .

Pointing to historically low wages, officials said the out-of-school workforce typically earns less than $45,000 a year, with little prospect of “advancing their careers despite high levels of education.”

Since the majority of the after-school workforce comes from minority and low-income backgrounds, 50% of workers must supplement their income, even though nearly 70% have a bachelor’s degree or higher, officials said.

Michael Holmes, executive director of The Black Community Provider Network, whose goal is to support families with educational resources and social service programs, said Wednesday that even before the pandemic, “it was always a struggle and a challenge to maintain the endowment of staff and create sustainability. ”

“These programs are sorely needed and should be part of the fabric of the community,” Holmes said, adding that for years, “single parents haven’t had places for their children to attend, and the pandemic has exposed that.”

A CPS spokeswoman said that while it’s early days, the district isn’t expecting a shortage of staff for its after-school enrichment programs, which begin three weeks after school starts on Aug. 22.

“We are hopeful that with nearly 91,000 students participating in summer programs, including some of the same out-of-school programs that we offer during the school year, we will not see a lull in staffing levels,” spokeswoman Mary Fergus said in a statement. A thursday. statement.

About 940 students are enrolled and 80 students remain on a waiting list for the Arlington Heights Park District’s Children at Play program, said Katie Waszak, program and day camp supervisor at the park district.

The organization has seen child care needs rise as more families now have both parents working, rather than just one, Waszak said.

“I’ve heard a lot from parents that their schedules are changing, they’re going back to the office, or other child care options aren’t an option or aren’t working for their family,” she said.

Half of Children At Play’s 12 sites have waiting lists, Waszak said. While it’s not unusual for the program to have waiting lists at some of the schools it serves, Waszak said increased demand coupled with staffing shortages this fall have posed challenges.

The program, which pays starting wages of $15 to $18 an hour and part-time benefits, plans to accommodate more students as more staff are hired, Waszak said.

For more than 30 years, the Northbrook Park District’s Adventure Campus has been considered “an essential service for working families in the community,” said Katie Kotloski, manager of the North Suburban Park District’s recreation division.

So when the program paused some of its offerings during the early days of the pandemic, Kotloski anticipated that employees would be eager to return to work once the program was back in full force.

“I thought after the pandemic relief money ended, they would come back, but that was silly, because most of them didn’t come back,” Kotloski said.

With 167 kids on a fall waiting list at one point, Kotloski said park district leaders concluded the only way to solve the staffing shortage was to raise salaries and offer a $1,000 signing bonus.

Weeks later, a multigenerational team of 55 new hires, ranging in age from high school to retirees, signed on to care for the 350 children enrolled in the park district’s before- and after-school programs held at five local elementary schools. Kotloski said.

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As of Thursday, 15 children remained on the waiting list, he said.

“We started training our new hires this week, and we’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll get those 15 students sooner rather than later,” Kotloski said.

Meanwhile, staff at the city’s Carole Robertson Center are also continuing to recruit new employees as they try to narrow down the waiting list. Employees who work in after-school care offerings live in the community, and many are parents or grandparents with children in the programs, said Riley, the director.

“Working parents in the communities we serve have never had the luxury of working at home, because they are essential workers employed in restaurants, hospitals and daycare centers,” Riley said.

Yet another challenge in recruiting new employees into after school programs is that some members of the community are reluctant to work directly with young children due to health and safety concerns stemming from the pandemic.

“We are still mindful that COVID is not gone, and we are focused on keeping our sites open,” Riley said. “We’re very lucky that we didn’t have any problems this summer, but it’s still here.”


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