Parents scramble to find after-school care due to staffing shortages

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As the first day of classes in Chicago’s public schools fast approached, directors of the Carole Robertson Center for Learning were desperate for skilled workers to oversee its before-and-after-school programs for students living in the West and north of the city.

“It’s been really difficult 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 doing our best and moving as fast as we can,” said Riley, whose team oversees seven programs at Robertson Center’s three sites and four CPS-based programs. .

The programs, which midweek had about 10 children on the waitlist, serve about 400 students from kindergarten through eighth grade with two models: daily after-school care and a club roster.

Riley said officials have been forced to reduce some of the offerings for upper-grade students as they try to accommodate wait-listed families and incoming kindergartners.

“There’s always been a high turnover rate, but now some people are leaving to take nanny jobs that pay them as much to babysit one child as they do to babysit 20 kids,” Riley said.

Growing demand for before- and after-school care for Chicago-area students coincides with a severe worker shortage, leaving parents and caregivers scrambling to find solutions just days before school starts. school year 2022-2023.

According to a recent survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Afterschool Alliance, like the healthcare, hospitality and airline sectors, before- and after-school programs in the United States are facing challenges. significant in recruiting, training and retaining workers.

About half of participants in the Alliance survey said they were “extremely concerned” about staff shortages, with 31% citing extreme concerns about “maintaining adequate staff due to health issues and new procedures”.

“We face a lot of challenges because we’ve lost a lot of manpower, and it’s a tough time to bring people back,” said Erik Peterson, senior vice president of policy for the Alliance.

As more employees return to work in offices this fall, the need for daycare grows, Peterson said. “I hear parents looking for solutions and options, and a lot of people having to make tough decisions,” he said.

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

Now that school is due to start in less than a week, they are on the waiting list for the program at their children’s Northbrook School. They tried to enroll their fourth grader and kindergarten as soon as online registration opened, but the program was full within minutes, he said.

He and his wife have looked at other local before- and after-school child care options, but they are also comprehensive or cost significantly more than the school’s program, he said. They explored the possibility of hiring a nanny, “but it’s almost impossible to find a part-time nanny 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 who doesn’t have much flexibility in her schedule.

“I really hope we go 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 from ACT Now, Illinois-based After School for Children and Teens, said the after-school workforce statewide and across the country “faces a unprecedented personnel crisis”.

Pointing to historically low salaries, officials said those in the after-school workforce typically earned less than $45,000 a year, with little prospect of “career advancement despite levels of high education”.

With most of the after-school workforce coming from heavily minority and low-income backgrounds, 50% of workers need to supplement their incomes, although nearly 70% have a bachelor’s degree or higher, officials said.

Michael Holmes, executive director of the Black Community Provider Network, which aims 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 personal and create sustainability. ”

“These programs are so needed and should be part of the fabric of the community,” Holmes said, adding that for years, “single parents have had no place for their children, and the pandemic has revealed that.” .

A CPS spokeswoman said while it’s early, the district doesn’t expect a staffing shortage for its after-school enrichment programs, which begin three weeks after school starts Aug. 22.

“We’re hopeful that with nearly 91,000 students engaged in summer programs — including some of the same after-school programs we offer during the school year — we won’t see a break in enrollment,” the door said. -speaking Mary Fergus on 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, the park district’s program and day camp supervisor.

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

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

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 has posed challenges.

The program, which pays a starting salary 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 Adventure Campus has been considered “an essential service for working families in the community,” said Katie Kotloski, manager of the suburban park district’s recreation division. north.

So when the program suspended some of its offerings at the start of the pandemic, Kotloski anticipated that employees would be eager to get back to work once the program returns.

“I thought after the pandemic financial aid ended they would be back, but that was a foolish thought because most didn’t come back,” Kotloski said.

With 167 children 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 wages and provide a signing bonus of $1,000.

Weeks later, a multi-generational team of 55 new hires, ranging from high school to retired, had signed on to care for the 350 children enrolled in the Park District’s before-and-after school programs held onsite at five elementary schools. local, says Kotloski.

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

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

Meanwhile, staff at the city’s Carole Robertson Center are also recruiting new recruits as they attempt to reduce the waiting list. Employees handling 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 from home, as they are essential workers employed by restaurants, hospitals and daycares,” Riley said.

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

“We are still mindful that COVID has not gone away, and we are focused on keeping our sites open,” Riley said. “We’re very lucky that we haven’t had any problems this summer, but it’s still there.”

kcullotta@chicagotribune.com

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