Six months after scrambling to rent gyms and church basements to care for children whose schools didn’t open, community groups are again dashing to accommodate the whiplash changes to school schedules as districts shift back to in-person learning.
One after-school program director only learned from a parent last week the details of this week’s full school reopening. Another director is desperately seeking buses to bring students to her temporary spaces; despite reopening, some schools are not letting after-school programs back in the buildings.
And many after-school programs are struggling to retain employees who can’t tolerate wild shifts in hours and pay: Aides who are losing hours or being laid off as schools reopen will be needed back full time in just a few weeks for April vacation.
“They’ve staffed up to provide full-day support and care,” said Ardith Wieworka, chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership. “Now, all of a sudden, ‘We don’t need you anymore.’ How do you run a business when the rules of the road keep changing?”
The rules changed three weeks ago when Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley gained authority to order districts back to school. Most elementary schools are planning to resume in-person instruction by April 5. Middle schools are due back April 28.
But as with all things COVID, schools have been inconsistent in their approaches. Some are seeking waivers to postpone reopening; others are rushing to open sooner. With little direction, community organizations and after-school providers are trying to fill the gaps in child supervision, as they have throughout the past year, when COVID quarantines and regulatory changes kept them jumping.
“‘Flexibility’ and ‘pivoting’: If I have to use those words any more, I think I might throw up,” said Sarah Morrison, the executive director of Quincy After School Child Care. “We are adjusting as fast as we possibly can.”
Deborah Kneeland Keegan, executive director of the For Kids Only Afterschool program, is rushing to find buses to bring children from Revere, Winthrop, and Everett schools to the spots she opened during the pandemic. Normally, she operates her program inside the schools, but after being edged out by COVID, she’s not being invited back in when they reopen.
“And that’s a costly endeavor,” she said, “because to find buses, we have to make sure we have monitors, that there’s COVID protocols being adhered to, and how do we get buses all over the city at dismissal time?”
Back-to-school still won’t bring a normal day in many districts. Revere schools, which had been remote all year, will begin bringing students back in person part time this week, but elementary students will be dismissed before lunch for afternoon remote learning. East Boston Social Centers, which serves students in East Boston, Winthrop, Chelsea, and Revere, learned just last week the full details of the plan. It will need to hire an off-hours bus service to transport students en masse to the center, where they are likely to commingle with the remote students whose parents don’t send them back to school, said Justin Pasquariello, the nonprofit’s executive director.
“For us, it has felt kind of like the expectation is that our field will continue to be there providing this full-day remote instruction for kids as long as it’s needed,” said Pasquariello. “It’s not really a lot of notice for the shift that needs to happen.”
Like other early-education providers, after-school programs are expecting substantial aid to arrive from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, as well as a prior federal stimulus package that has yet to be distributed. But they say they needed that relief yesterday.
“We’ve done everything to tread water to stay afloat. But for us and programs like us, how much longer can we tread water until that rescue ring arrives?” said Morrison. “You can hear the helicopter, but can you keep swimming? We’re tired. Like so many other industries, we’re just tired.”
Her program, known as QCARE, normally has about 500 students attending after-school programs in nine Quincy schools. This year, only about 170 families signed up, but for longer hours, as QCARE shifted to providing remote learning supervision and extended-day care for kindergartners whose four days a week in the classroom ended at just 10:30 a.m.
That required employees to work longer hours, and to give up other part-time jobs they might have juggled around their after-school shifts. As they lose their hours now, those workers are jumping ship.
“Right now, if I had funding in place, I would probably give retention bonuses or increase wages,” said Morrison. “I would do something to get that money into staff hands to make this job feasible for them.”
Work conditions have been hard all year on employees, who only recently became eligible for COVID-19 vaccines and are lining up to get them. While schools were closed, or alternating in-person days, after-school and child care teachers stepped in to supervise remote learning — often in the same schools, but in spaces like gyms, with mechanical noise in the background.
“It’s a headache-inducing environment,” Morrison said. “Our staff do it because they’re passionate and committed, but they’re at the end of their ropes.”
As they scale back in preparation for school reopenings, some providers are finding that demand is low for their traditional, after-school hours. Some speculate that, after the year they’ve all endured, families are less willing to pay for care for the few hours between school and dinner time.
“Some people had — not to say a good experience with COVID — but they’ve made some lifestyle changes,” said Beth Hughes, owner and director of Abington Imagine Nation Academy morning and after-school program. “All of a sudden you’re able to look back and say, ‘I really can cut back on my hours at work and afford it. I really enjoy being with my kids more.’ ”
The scaled-back needs of some parents, though, create problems for others. QCARE has only seven families who need after-school care in one elementary school, not enough to fund a program. That means Michael Richardson, a Quincy single dad who works full time, can’t keep sending his kindergartner to the program she’s been attending all year.
He has backup: He continued to pay a nanny all through the pandemic to fill in the gaps of his two children’s shifting school schedules. He never knew when it was going to change.
Still, he said, “I can’t tell you how challenging it’s been. My heart definitely goes out to people who didn’t have support or the means to pay for support.”