The grade-school-age children are a kaleidoscope of swirling color on the schoolyard grass, all laughter and happy chatter as they play with Hula-Hoops and a soccer ball. In a few minutes, they’ll leave behind the crisp, brisk air of this December afternoon and go inside the Historic Scott School to have a snack and get help with homework or form small play groups.
They’re part of the Promise South Salt Lake “Afterschool” program, which serves many roles for the children and their families. Its 14 centers provide elementary-age kids, teens or both with food, homework help, fun activities and prevention lessons like avoiding alcohol and drugs. They also serve as an information conduit for families, helping connect them to vital resources.
The so-called Afterschool programs are a specific type of program, which often become daylong during the summer; not all programs that take place after school are in that group. Thousands of these programs exist throughout the country, yet they are out of reach for an estimated 25 million more children whose parents can’t find available slots in affordable programs near them.
The programs serve families of all types — single-parent, two-parent, married, divorced — and across income ranges, fairly balanced overall nationally between low-income and higher-income families. Experts describe them as important for the economy as both a support to parental employment and a source of jobs.
A report issued this week by the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., said demand for the programs has grown even as many of them have reduced staff or hours, amid the pandemic. And COVID-19 has increased the pressure on families wrestling with school lessons that may be delivered in-person, online or in some combination.
Experts say the programs became an integral part of the juggling act as parents balanced work obligations with the changes placed on education by COVID-19. Among parents relying on such programs are workers — many of them designated “essential” — who counted on the program to supervise online learning and provide safe haven when schools were physically closed, as well as parents doing work from home, which doesn’t allow them to supervise their children after school.
“Unmet demand has never been higher,” said Jodi Grant, alliance executive director, during an online presentation Tuesday to introduce the report “America After 3PM: Demand Grows, Opportunity Shrinks.” For every child enrolled in the programs, three are on waiting lists — and children of color and those who are low-income have the greatest unmet need.
Currently, 7.7 million children are home alone nationally, actually a significant improvement over the peak of 15.1 million in 2009, the alliance found. But roughly 850,000 elementary school students were home alone for at least part of the afternoon in 2020.
Funding, or rather its lack, is the biggest barrier to providing the programs for these children. It’s a perpetual challenge because grants come and go and funders sometimes shift their focus from year to year. And, despite the survey showing broad bipartisan support for the programs, President Donald Trump’s budget proposal for the current fiscal year eliminates 21st Century Community Learning Center money, the only federal funding stream designated solely for Afterschool programs, which sometimes include before-school and summer learning programs.
To get a sense of scale, 21st Century grants help states like Utah, Idaho and Alaska each pay for more than 6,000 of the children in Afterschool programs, while California uses its grant for more than 150,000 children and New York more than 90,000.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and co-chairwoman of the Senate Afterschool Caucus, said she’s sponsoring a bill to provide more funding for the programs, but program operators and parents worry the programs won’t be funded adequately to meet surging need.
Since the pandemic began, the needs have doubled, said Margaret K. Peterson, director of The Community Education Partnership of West Valley City, a nonprofit in Utah that provides Afterschool education opportunities. The program helps kids get up to grade level in reading, math and science by providing tutoring and homework help. Peterson said youths develop social and relationship skills.
School principals in the Granite School District are program partners, providing space for the program within some schools, though the programs themselves are funded by grants.
Nationwide, COVID-19 has closed centers and forced many of the programs online, where participation varies. Not all families have access to technology so their kids can connect.
During the pandemic, programs have been called on to do more, “adapting to meet the needs” of the children and families they serve — whether providing care in their community for the children of essential workers or doing grab-and go meal delivery, dropping off school lesson plans or other tasks. Even with schools closed, 90% of the programs have operated at some level, often serving as hubs and learning centers, Grant, from the alliance, said.
Some of the programs have received limited COVID-19 relief dollars, particularly in states where schools are being conducted online and the programs serve as full-day centers where the kids can complete their online learning and be safe while parents work. But that’s put even more strain on programs, since operating all day costs significantly more and health safety precautions have increased bills, too, Jen Rinehart, an alliance official, told the Deseret News.
The national report says 3 in 5 programs are in jeopardy of closing permanently or laying off staff. And since the pandemic began, more than a fifth of programs have laid off or furloughed staff, while a quarter have reduced staff hours.
And as demand for programs rose, administrators found they could serve about half as many students, compared to before the pandemic, due to social distancing and other requirements. Many programs have waiting lists and a large portion of the students and their families who are in the programs struggle with food insecurity and a need for greater community resources. The students often face social and emotional challenges, the report said.
“During these uncertain times, parents see Afterschool as a solution to help the country get to the other side of the pandemic,” the alliance survey found. That was a sentiment echoed in both the report and the discussion at its release, where speakers praised the programs as a tool to boost the economy by letting parents work or look for work.
Safe and sociable
Such a program has been a lifesaver for Stacy Medford, mom of a 6-year-old girl in Fort Worth, Texas, who told Afterschool Alliance panelists she moved to be closer to a free, high-quality program because the adults in her family all work full-time and no one was available to pick her daughter up from school or keep her safe until her mom got home each day.
“It wasn’t easy to find Afterschool programs that would work with our income,” she said, noting that having her daughter in a high-quality program has helped her maintain her own employment and provided peace of mind.
Parental support for federal funding of the programs has grown, with nearly 9 in 10 favoring public funding of the programs to “expand opportunities for kids in underserved communities,” Grant said. The political support is bipartisan.
Among parents surveyed for the report, 91% of Democrats, 87% of Independents and 85% of Republicans express support for public funding of the programs. And the alliance said that every $1 spent for the programs saves taxpayers at least $3 by improving students’ school performance and increasing their future earning potential, while reducing crime and welfare costs.
The surveys included 31,055 households, with at least 200 in every state, said alliance director Grant. They were conducted online and then supplemented with phone interviews between January and March 2020.