Marthine Satris was eager to enroll her son in the after-school program at Cleveland Elementary School this year. She’d had to pay for her kindergartener to attend a program last year, but learned that a different provider would be offering after-school programming for free this year.
But shortly before school started, Satris learned her son had been waitlisted for the program, as had dozens of others. Satris was left with only a few weeks to find a spot elsewhere, but on short notice, many of the other free or low-cost options had filled up.
“It feels like COVID times again where you think you have a plan and then it gets taken away,” said Satris, whose son is in first grade at Cleveland. “We will pod up and figure this out, just parents, because there’s no institutional support.”
They aren’t alone. In Oakland, staffing shortages in after-school programs have left hundreds of families scrambling to secure supervision for their children between the time that school gets out and the end of the work day. Some parents are reverting back to “pandemic pods” and splitting the cost of a nanny with other parents to watch a group of kids in the afternoon. Others, like Satris, have roped in family members to help with childcare during the week while still searching for affordable programs with openings.
While waitlists haven’t been uncommon in previous years, the issue is exacerbated this year as the community organizations that operate after-school programs are struggling to hire instructors. Because of strict adult-to-student ratios, they’re limited in the number of students they can enroll in their programs. After-school instructors typically lead classes of 10 to 20 students in enrichment activities like art or gardening, and provide academic support like homework help.
“We’ve been aggressively hiring and going through interviews, and we’re just striking out,” said Darling Mieu, the communications director for EBAYC, which runs programs at six elementary schools and two middle schools in Oakland. “Half of my interviewees that I schedule will do a no-show or don’t even call me back. Last week, I scheduled 15 and half of those did not respond.”
Oakland Unified School District partners with 15 different community organizations that provide after-school programs from the moment the school bell rings at the end of the day until 6 p.m., said Martha Peña, OUSD’s coordinator for expanded learning programs.
“Staffing shortages have been an issue since the pandemic started. This issue isn’t exclusive to expanded learning programs or Oakland; we hear from other districts that staffing is also a problem for them,” Peña wrote in an email to The Oaklandside.
After-school programs across OUSD have been impacted
The personnel shortage has presented the school district with a dilemma. This year, OUSD and community organizations received extra funding—OUSD received an additional $10 million—from the state to expand their free and low-cost programs, but in order to take on more students, they must first hire additional staff.
In the first week of school, EBAYC alone had 25 unfilled positions for after-school instructors, Mieu said. At one school, Manzanita SEED Elementary, EBAYC has the space to accommodate 100 students, said Mieu. But because the program isn’t fully staffed, they had to stop enrolling at around 60.
With relatively low pay (salaries start around $17 an hour and top out at around $25) and only part-time hours, the after-school instructor jobs can be difficult to fill. The job requirements also disqualify job-seekers who might otherwise be interested: applicants must have at least 48 college units or take an instructional aide exam. Candidates must also pass a background check, be fingerprinted, and be cleared for tuberculosis.
Oakland Leaf, another community organization, runs after-school programs at seven district and charter schools in Oakland, including at Cleveland Elementary. In a typical year, Oakland Leaf enrolls 800 to 1,000 students in its programs across the city. As of this week, there are only 555 students enrolled, largely because of a lack of staffing, said executive director Melissa Mendez Ochoa.
Whereas Oakland Leaf may have started previous school years with two or three openings, the organization now has 18, added Ochoa—a slight improvement over the 25 vacancies it had a few weeks ago at the beginning of the school year.
“Everything after COVID has looked a lot different in the school setting,” Mendez Ochoa told The Oaklandside. “We’ve had a lot of people transition out of education in terms of our organization, and this year has been particularly difficult compared to other years.”
Bay Area Community Resources, which provides after-school enrichment at schools across the region, has about 60 openings across 30 schools in Oakland, said Marisa Ramirez, the organization’s director of expanded learning in the East Bay. The group is trying to ramp up its hiring by offering bonuses, marketing jobs on social media, and attending job fairs. Yet, the organization is still facing a 20-25% vacancy rate, Ramirez said.
“It’s because the need is higher. We have a lot more money with the expanded learning opportunities funds, but then you need to serve a lot more students,” Ramirez said. Bay Area Community Resources currently serves 80 to 100 students on average in each of its programs, but has the funding to accommodate up to 140.
Oakland school communities have had to get creative to minimize the impact of staff shortages
Sally Jenkins-Stevens has twins in second grade at Manzanita SEED who were waitlisted for the after-school program there. She ended up enrolling her children in a private program, which means leaving work in the middle of the day to pick up the twins from school and take them to the program in the Hoover Foster neighborhood. Jenkins-Stevens also works for the San Francisco Beacon Initiative, an organization that provides after-school programming across the Bay.
“Programs are short-staffed all over the Bay Area [and] it’s very clear why,” she said. “The pay for after-school programming is low and it’s always been. Throughout the pandemic, people who showed up to work in person were putting themselves in more danger and getting paid the lowest. Low-paid positions in every field are short-staffed right now.”
With staffing issues so widespread, Jenkins-Stevens wonders what more could be done by the city to fill the gaps. She suggested that the city’s tuition-based Town Afterschool Program could increase its capacity at recreation centers in neighborhoods where other programs are full.
In the absence of an immediate solution, schools, community organizations, and families have had to get creative in coming up with after-school care options for students.
Garfield Elementary in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood has seen an increase in the number of students it serves in its after-school programs this year, partially because of increased funding and a change in program guidelines that now allow the school to serve students in kindergarten and transitional kindergarten.
Last year, Garfield had eight after-school classes; this year the school has 11, serving just under 200 students, said principal Edgar Rodriguez-Ramirez.
“Thankfully we’re fully staffed in the day school, but for after school it has been a challenge to find two positions,” he said. “We’ve just had to get creative. At the end of the day, we want to ensure that we’re serving all the children that we agreed to serve within the parameters around the law.”
School-site staff at Garfield have occasionally stepped in to cover an after-school class, as have other staff at EBAYC, which has run the school’s program for 20 years, Rodriguez-Ramirez said.
OUSD is also using some of its additional funding to launch an elementary sports program, partnering with the Oakland Athletic League to provide a six-week sports camp as part of the expanded learning program, and is seeking out arts organizations to provide art activities, said Peña, the expanded learning coordinator for OUSD.
When parents at Cleveland Elementary found out that there would be fewer slots than anticipated in their after-school program, they sent out a survey to other Cleveland families to gauge what the childcare needs were. As a temporary fix, they organized a rotating crew of parents who are taking turns watching the kids after school. Some parents offered to buy snacks for the kids and provide toys and art materials so the children can have something to do. During the second week of school, there were about 12 kids participating, said Sulaiman Hyatt, one of the parents who volunteered to supervise.
“It’s not an easy ask for parents to come and do this work for free,” he told The Oaklandside.
Satris and her husband, who both have flexible work schedules, take time in the afternoon to watch their son four days a week, making up their work hours in the early mornings and after dinner, she said. Satris’ mom comes over on Wednesdays.
Some parents have also offered to volunteer with Oakland Leaf so that it can accommodate more students, said Suzanna Sitomer, another Cleveland parent.
“We’ve been offering free care with parent volunteers for the desperate parents who really need care right now,” Sitomer said. “There are other parents who have just taken off work. It isn’t ideal. It’s workable, but it’s stressful, especially after a year and a half of trying to do it during COVID.”