The Salt Lake City School District’s after-school programs are already dramatically understaffed, to the point that more kids than ever are on the waiting list and fewer than ever have been able to enroll.
Then, on Tuesday, seven employees walked out.
Before that, the programs had 17 fewer staff members than last year. Now, the deficit is 24. And the problem is still growing.
“We don’t have the volume needed to cover what our gaps are,” said Sandra Buendia, the district’s executive director of educational equity and student support.
Buendia spoke at the district’s board of education meeting earlier this week, describing for more than an hour the dire state of the after-school programs that she oversees. The issue boiled over this fall when parents reported they had to scramble to find child care after being told at the last minute that there wasn’t enough room for their kids — although many had been enrolled for years — because of the staff shortages. At the time, the district didn’t know just how many families were impacted.
According to the numbers presented for the first time by Buendia, the cut was deeper than expected. And with the new resignations this week, it could continue to get worse.
This year, the district’s after-school programs registered 1,707 kids to participate. That’s nearly 500 students fewer than last year, which saw 2,195 make it in.
“I do worry that we’ve lost spots,” said school board member Nate Salazar. “It causes me alarm.”
Meanwhile, 705 kids remain on the waiting list. That’s also 100 more than in the 2018-2019 school year.
Salazar had expressed concern that students on the west side of the city might be disproportionately impacted by having fewer slots open. He worried that their parents are more likely to work and would have fewer options for affordable child care; the district’s after-school program is $4 an hour.
However, an analysis of the numbers shows that fewer east side elementary students are being enrolled, with a drop to 749 this year, from the 990 admitted last year. That’s a 24% decline, while west side schools saw a 10% dip.
Buendia said part of her focus has been making sure that the parents and students who need the program the most are able to get in despite the cuts, and she’s personally enrolled kids whose families have fee waivers or have incomes that fall below the poverty line.
At Park View Elementary, for instance, at least 60% of families qualify for waivers. That school was an anomaly in the data — enrolling three more kids than last year for a total of 69. “We need to be empathetic that way,” Buendia said.
The director said her top priority is getting as many students off of the waitlist as possible. But, she noted, her hands are tied while the staff shortage continues.
In 2018-2019, she had 138 employees. Now, she has roughly 114 — and more of those work part time than before.
And she’s having a serious problems in hiring. Those who work in the district’s after-school programs are paid $10 an hour. And they only work about three hours a day, starting at 3 p.m. (Part time staffers cover two or three days instead of all five.)
“That’s the lowest rung,” said school board member Samuel Hanson.
“But I don’t know what our options are for giving them more pay,” said Melissa Ford, the board’s vice president.
Buendia has been trying to recruit at high schools and colleges for students interested in getting experience in education. She’s also asked parents to apply. The common denominator in people’s disinterest, she said, is the low pay.
Lexi Cunningham, the district’s superintendent, suggested that many parents view the after-school programs as child care, which it’s not intended to be. The idea is instead for students to get help with homework and participate in enrichment activities.
“This was never meant for us to provide day care for parents,” she added. “This is about helping students, not becoming a day care service.”
Several board members wondered if Salt Lake City could start providing after-school or day care services to cover the growing need — instead of having it all fall on the district.
“I’m not entirely sure it’s our responsibility to cover all 700 of the kids on the waitlist,” Ford said.
Others suggested that the school district move its enrollment process up. Currently, parents apply in July — which comes long after other programs have accepted kids. If parents knew earlier that district programs were full, they would still have time to look for other options.
That was a big criticism with the shortages this year.
“There is no way for us to find an alternative,” parent Ting Ting Pang previously told The Salt Lake Tribune. Her 7-year-old daughter was in the after-school program last year at Bonneville Elementary. This year, she was one of the students who didn’t make it in.
Several asked why they didn’t know earlier when they still had time to apply for private care.
Ford added: “I think there’s great work being done, so I don’t say this lightly, but I think there’s room for improvement.”
Buendia said, no matter what, that has to start with hiring more staff. They can’t afford for more employees to quit.