Recruitment & Retention

After-School Programs Are Low on Staff, Leaving Students Unsupervised and Underserved

By Mark Lieberman — March 03, 2022 5 min read
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Unprecedented staffing shortages have plagued schools nationwide all year—and these issues haven’t spared after-school programs.

Roughly three-quarters of after-school program providers who answered a recent survey from Edge Research for the Afterschool Alliance said they’re struggling to hire or retain staff. Suburban program providers were more likely to report staff shortage troubles than urban and rural providers.

Reduced staffing for after-school programs mean some services had to shut down entirely, or reduce the number of students who can attend. That means fewer students are getting crucial opportunities for social-emotional support and homework help, and more kids may be ending up without proper supervision after school with family members still at work.

Slightly more than half of the1,049 after-school providers who answered the survey, conducted in November and December, said they were “extremely concerned” last fall about staff shortages. Eighty-seven percent said they were at least “somewhat concerned.”

For after-school programs, having an insufficient number of people to lead programs adds another headache to what is already a stressful and draining job.

“If I had a quarter for every time I looked at a child and said you need to mask up over your mouth, I could retire,” said Angela Todriff, a senior child-care director for the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties in Washington state.

Todriff runs before- and after-school programs for three school districts. At its peak, her team can run 30-student programs at 14 different school sites. Each one needs two workers to meet the state-mandated ratio of one adult for every 15 children.

Since December, though, the team has only had enough staff to maintain six 30-student programs.

The YMCA typically finds luck employing college students, who are comfortable with the unconventional business hours, and paraprofessionals, who are already in the building during the school day.

But the districts, like so many others this year, are running short on qualified paraprofessionals, which means the after-school programs feel the spillover effects. College students, too, haven’t been turning out when new positions open up.

These positions pay between $15 and $18 an hour for 30 to 40 hours of work per week. Todriff is looking for ways to make the job more appealing, including offering a higher salary.

“We’re just literally not getting applications,” she said.

Increasing salaries is the most common approach after-school providers are taking to stem the tide of staffing shortages, with more than half trying it out, according to the survey. Roughly a third said they’re expanding professional development opportunities; 18 percent said they’re offering free child care for staff; and 15 percent said they’re adding sign-on bonuses to entice new workers.

Some programs are also raising prices for students to pay for increased wages for staff. Others are supplementing their budgets with federal pandemic relief aid. After-school programs that received federal relief funds were more likely to take steps to attract staff, according to the survey results. The majority of survey respondents, though, didn’t receive those dollars.

In Contra Costa, Calif., after-school program providers started getting interest last fall from potential employees, but when they scheduled interviews, the candidates sometimes wouldn’t show up. Some candidates even got through the process to the point of sharing proof that they passed a required state exam only to disappear.

“Most of our workforce works less than 20 hours a week with only a handful of staff making over $20 an hour—which is horrible when you think of everything we have been asking staff to do,” said Kasey Blackburn-Jiron, an expanded-learning coordinator for the West Contra Costa district.

Among those asks, she said: “Be amazing youth development practitioners. Teach our children new skills. Support social and emotional development, all while we are struggling through a pandemic that has ravaged our communities.”

Blackburn-Jiron’s team contracts with nonprofit organizations that hire employees to craft after-school programs. The vast majority of those providers are struggling to fill positions, she said. Love.Learn.Success, one of the only providers in the district to get federal relief aid, has been the most successful recruiter among programs that serve the district, Blackburn-Jiron said. The organization used its $800,000 in federal relief funds to maintain health insurance benefits and raise wages for staff, and to hire enrichment specialists who lead dance workshops and nature walks, said Ann Ngo, CEO of Love.Learn.Success.

The state recently bumped up the district’s after-school program funding allocation, but Blackburn-Jiron won’t be able to distribute the money until the school year’s almost over.

She worries about finding enough people to run summer programming and about the working families who depend on after-school programs to help make ends meet. “It’s heartbreaking to admit that we have kids on waitlists,” she said.

Fifty-four percent of survey respondents also said they have waitlists for student attendance.

Even programs that haven’t experienced painful staff shortages have seen the pandemic affect their operations. The after-school program known as Catamount Community Hours, or “CatCH,” at the public St. Johnsbury School in Vermont managed to overstaff its programs before the school year started, anticipating that some people might have to be out due to COVID-19 exposure.

Christine Owens, who directs the CatCH middle school program, has filled in for program staff on several occasions, cutting into her regular administrative duties, including interacting with parents.

“That does add a layer of stress to everything,” Owens said. “Overall, we’ve been very lucky that we haven’t had to close our program.”

The pandemic has crashed against the after-school programming in other ways, too. Many Kitsap County school buildings now use the rooms that previously housed after-school programs as overflow space for social distancing purposes, forcing Todriff’s programs to relocate.

Some students who previously could have taken the bus from one school building to another for an after-school program have now lost that option because districts consolidated routes.

Todriff worries about the students who are missing out on crucial emotional support because their typical after-school program isn’t running. Children who might not have family members at home right after school no longer have the lifeline in the school building that they once had.

Still, she’s among the 74 percent of survey respondents who are optimistic about the future of their after-school program. Hiring has started to pick up a bit as mask mandates wind down and COVID-19 cases fall. The pandemic has also forced her team to rethink some of its curriculum, putting a stronger emphasis on social-emotional support.

“When we can’t run a program it’s not because we don’t want to,” Todriff said. “Right now we don’t have the means to do it. We want to get back to that.”

Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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