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Staff shortages, growing demand spur long wait lists for after-school care

Nguyen walks home from school with her kids Yury Dean Hua-Nguyen (left) and Adenine Hua-Nguyen. Vi Nguyen is waitlisted for after-school care, and so took a new part-time role at her biotech job so she can watch her kids in the afternoon.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Working parents usually let out a collective sigh of relief when the school year starts. No more cobbling together summer camps, swimming lessons, and trips to grandma’s house now that kids are back in class and have after-school programs to attend.

But this year, with remote learning and stringent safety protocols finally a thing of the past, many families are finding themselves up against yet another obstacle: being shut out of after-school care. Staffing shortages are rampant, reducing the number of children that can enroll, and demand is soaring as parents return to their offices and prepandemic routines in greater numbers.

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In many ways, it’s a reflection of the fluctuating workforce. People are less interested in part-time jobs making roughly $20 an hour that require close contact with throngs of children, especially when there are so many other employers hiring. Parents who were able to work remotely over the past two and a half years have less flexibility now to fill gaps in child care. And, those who can continue to work from home are fed up with having children underfoot.

At the same time, the pandemic is lingering, with concerns about adequate spacing and workers calling in sick further limiting capacity.

Parents stuck on wait lists are scrambling to find baby sitters, modifying their work hours, and interrupting their days to drive their children to off-site after-school programs. Some are considering quitting their jobs or changing careers entirely.

Heather Saforrian, a single mother of two boys, ages 6 and 7, tried to find alternatives when she didn’t make the cut for the city-run program at her sons’ school in Cambridge. A church basement care center has shut down, the YMCA is fully booked, and the time it would take to travel to another program didn’t make sense. Baby sitters are few and far between.

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So Saforrian, who works in business strategy for a biotech, is splitting after-school care duties with her parents and her former partner, each of them adjusting their work day to do so.

Mattahunt Elementary School first grade teacher Julie Walsh greets new students on the first day of school for Boston students.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“This is my third year of working super random hours sometimes because I have nobody to care for my kids,” said Saforrian, who is considering moving to a school district where there are more after-school options. “I’m sort of at my wit’s end.”

Parents are up in arms in Cambridge, in particular, due to a new system that has sharply increased demand. Last year, the city’s Community Schools program launched a lottery that prioritizes low-income families, some of whom may not have applied in the past or were shut out when the system was first-come, first -served. This year, nearly 400 students are on the wait list at the 11 elementary schools served by the Community Schools program, up from 325 last year.

The Cambridge program is short about 40 part-time staff, despite raising wages to $22-$24 an hour, up from $16-$19 prepandemic, and offering $500 retention bonuses, said Ellen Semonoff, assistant city manager for human services. Full capacity would be 815 kids, she said, up from 702 currently.

Staffing challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic, as fewer people want to work after-school hours, or in person, she said. This has also affected parents trying to hire caregivers to watch their kids at home, which in turn has driven more to apply for school-based programs.

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The reduced access for many households, including some that are still fairly low income, has spurred a group of Cambridge parents into action: filing public records requests about the Community Schools program, writing detailed analysis of their findings in a blog, and creating a petition to expand access to after-school care. They maintain the department is “using the hiring crisis as cover for justifying a really mediocre service.”

Semenoff said she is sympathetic to families struggling to find care but strongly believes prioritizing the lowest-income families is the right thing to do. “This is not a problem that can be solved overnight,” she said.

Vi Nguyen has resorted to making a “drastic change” at the Cambridge biotech where she works to care for her 5-year-old daughter after school. Nguyen is transitioning from a full-time research job focused on rare diseases to a part-time scientific outreach role, potentially changing the trajectory of her career.

“I had to do some soul searching,” she said. “Sometimes you want to contribute to society and sometimes family comes first.”

Applications are also up and staffing levels down at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, which runs nine after-school programs in Boston and Chelsea. Enrollment is still open, but wait lists are expected. Prepandemic, the clubs served around 5,000 youths annually, including teens, and last year had roughly half that number due to COVID restrictions, staff vacancies, and other factors.

The program currently has 42 unfilled after-school jobs, despite raising the minimum wage from $15 to $19 an hour and introducing signing and retention bonuses. Those openings include several full-time social worker positions to address mental health challenges brought about by the pandemic.

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“I think we’re at the stage where we are putting the pandemic behind us and far more families certainly want to access after-school programs,” said chief operating officer Pete Nash.

Staff member Tori Smith works with Enzo Teixeira, 7, at the YMCA of the North Shore's in-person program at the Ayers Ryal Side School in Beverly in 2021.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

In Newton, “demand feels higher than ever,” said Joshua Friedman, co-president of the Newton After School Association and director of the program at Mason-Rice Elementary. About 20students are on the Mason-Rice wait list this year, up from an average of four or five in the past. Parents who can no longer work remotely are scrambling to find child care, he said, while others are drawn to the socialization after-school programs provide, which could be particularly helpful for children who struggled emotionally during the pandemic.

“The pandemic is the big elephant in the room,” Friedman said, noting that some rooms are capped at a slightly lower number of students than usual in case spacing becomes an issue again.

If he could hire three more part-time teachers, seven or eight more kids could come off the wait list, he said. But hiring is a major challenge, despite a pay increase and less emphasis on experience, particularly now that education majors can go straight into teaching jobs instead of starting out in after-school programs, as Friedman did.

In Milton, the after-school programs are also experiencing significant staffing challenges.

John Gillis and his wife were so concerned about the lack of after-school care — their daughter is 24th on the list at Cunningham Elementary School in Milton — that they e-mailed the superintendent and the School Committee, imploring them to prioritize families in which both parents work outside the home.

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“It was just consuming us,” he said.

Days before school started, Gillis’s family found someone who could watch their daughter for one hour every afternoon. Gillis, a high school teacher in Easton, knows he’s fortunate that his school day ends at 2:45 p.m., though he can no longer stay late to coach or participate in events.

“I’ve got to white-knuckle it home,” he said. “When the bell rings . . . it’s out the door.”

Laura Tannenbaum, a single mother of a kindergartener in Arlington, spent the winter “in a panic” trying to get her son into after-school care. After calling every program in town and appealing to local parenting Facebook groups for help, Tannenbaum, a nurse practitioner in the intensive care unit at Boston Children’s Hospital, finally got into the local Boys & Girls Club five days a week, though she’s still wait-listed for transportation there on Tuesdays.

“It was a very dark winter for me,” she said, noting that she contemplated quitting her job. “It shouldn’t have to be this difficult.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her @ktkjohnston.