Parents struggle to find out-of-school care amid staff shortages

With the first day of classes at Chicago Public Schools fast approaching, the directors of the Carole Robertson Center for Learning were desperately looking for qualified employees to help with the before and after-school programs for students living in the city’s West and North neighborhoods.

“It’s been really 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 neighborhoods. Little Village, North Lawndale and Albany Park.

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

The programs, which had about 10 children on the waiting list by mid-week, serve about 400 students from kindergarten through eighth grade with two models: daily after-school care and a range of clubs.

Riley said officials have been forced to cut some of the supply for senior students as they try to accommodate waiting-list families and incoming preschoolers.

“There has always been a lot of attrition, but now some people are leaving to take babysitting jobs that pay them the same to babysit one child, instead of babysitting 20 children,” Riley said.

The rising demand for before and after school care for students from the Chicago area has coincided with a severe labor shortage, leaving parents and caregivers struggling to find solutions just days before the start of the 2022-2023 school year.

According to a recent survey by the Washington, DC-based Afterschool Alliance, before and after school programs in the US, like the healthcare, hospitality and aviation industries, face major challenges in recruiting, training and retaining employees.

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

“We face many challenges as we have lost a lot of workforce, and this is a difficult time to bring people back,” said Erik Peterson, the Alliance’s senior vice president of policies.

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

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

With school starting 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 preschooler as soon as registration opened online, but the program was full within minutes, he said.

He and his wife have looked into other local before- and after-school care options, but those are either full or cost significantly more than the school’s program, he said. They’ve explored the possibility of hiring a nanny, “but it’s nearly impossible to find a part-time nanny for an hour in the morning and two in the afternoon,” Friedopfer said.

Friedopfer often travels for work and his wife is a nurse who does not 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 at Illinois-based ACT Now, After School for Children and Teens, said the after-school workforce statewide and nationwide is “facing an unprecedented workforce crisis.”

Referring to historically low wages, officials said those in the after-school workforce typically earn less than $45,000 a year, with little prospect of “advantaging their careers despite high levels of education.”

Since most of the after-school workforce comes from a high minority and low income, 50% of workers must supplement their income, despite nearly 70% having 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 on Wednesday that even before the pandemic, it was “always a struggle and a challenge to retain workforces 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 not had places for their children, and the pandemic has exposed that.”

A CPS spokeswoman said that, while it is still early days, the district does not expect a staff shortage for its extracurricular enrichment programs, which begin three weeks after school begins on Aug. 22.

“We’re hopeful that with nearly 91,000 students engaged in summer programming — including some of the same extracurricular programs we offer during the school year — we won’t see a break in staffing,” spokeswoman Mary Fergus said in a Thursday. pronunciation.

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

The organization has seen the need for childcare increase as more families now have both parents employed, rather than just one, Waszak said.

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

Half of Children At Play’s 12 locations have waiting lists, Waszak said. While it’s not uncommon for the program to have waiting lists at some of the schools it serves, Waszak said increased demand coupled with staff shortages has presented challenges this fall.

The program, which pays an initial wage of $15 to $18 per 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, recreation manager for the park district’s northern suburbs.

So when the program paused some of its offerings during the early days of the pandemic, Kotloski expected employees to be happy to return to work once the program was back in full effect.

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

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

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

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On Thursday, there were still 15 children on the waiting list, she said.

“We started training our new employees this week and we are cautiously optimistic that we will get those 15 students sooner or later,” Kotloski said.

Meanwhile, staff at the city’s Carole Robertson Center are also still recruiting new staff as they try to shorten the waiting list. The staff who provide out-of-school care live in the community, and many are parents or grandparents with children in the programs, said Riley, the director.

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

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

“We’re also still aware that COVID isn’t gone, and we’re 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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