Kids Are Back in School—But What Are Working Parents Supposed to Do Between Dismissal and Dinner?

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The start of the school year is the light at the end of the tunnel for working parents. As soon as those school doors swing open, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief and go back to a life that doesn’t involve hemorrhaging money on expensive summer camps and private childcare; or, for those of us who couldn’t afford it, spending two months in survival mode, hoping to hold down a job amidst a whole lot of chaos and piecemeal supervision. So yes, back-to-school season is certainly cause for celebration…unless you fall into the sizable category of parents who are struggling to find after-school programs and lamenting the fact that the standard work day doesn’t end at 3 p.m. In that case, you can join the chorus with a not-so-celebratory, Oh, shit.

The hours between the end of the school day and the end of the workday are a problem that families desperately need to have solved with affordable, quality after-school care…and many parents, regardless of socioeconomic status, are hard pressed to find a program that meets their needs, or any program at all. We did the research, interviewed parents and spoke to experts to get a clearer picture of the after-school care crisis in this country and, well, it’s bleak. Here’s what you need to know—and why you should care. (Hint: It affects everyone.)

Meet the Experts:

  • Jamee Herbert is the founder and CEO of BridgeCare, a childcare software company that connects families, local licensed providers and government agencies. Jamee started her company in 2017 after realizing how challenging it was to access and afford quality childcare for her son, and the impact it has on women's careers. As an entrepreneur, she is working to modernize the childcare ecosystem and promote equity-driven solutions through tech.
  • Lea Woods is a Policy Associate at The Century Foundation. Her research focuses on a range of economic policy issues impacting women including paid family leave and childcare. Prior to joining The Century Foundation, Lea worked in fundraising and communications at nonprofits that promote women’s economic security and political power, including the Economic Policy Institute, Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the Center for Women’s Leadership.
  • Jodi Grant is the Executive Director at the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit public awareness and advocacy organization working to ensure that all children and youth have access to quality, affordable afterschool programs. Prior to joining the Afterschool Alliance, Grant served as the Director of Work and Family Programs for the National Partnership for Women & Families, where she worked to protect and expand the Family & Medical Leave Act. She also currently serves as a Board Member of the Search Institute for Community Schools Steering Committee.

The After-Care Problem

Demand Is High with Few Affordable Options

If you have after-school care on your mind, you aren’t alone. Based on research done by the Afterschool Alliance, Grant tells us that “it’s estimated that there are 25 million kids whose parents want them to be in after-school programs but don’t have access and it’s mostly because of cost.”

What’s more, the expert informed us that “the vast majority of after-school programs [roughly 80 percent] are paid for with parent fees.” And as anyone who has researched the option knows, privately funded programs can charge prohibitively high rates. (A much-loved STEM program in my own Brooklyn neighborhood costs roughly $10,000 for the academic year if you sign up for care from 3 to 5 p.m., five days a week. There’s an additional fee if you need to extend the time to cover your commute.)

“Afterschool care in my area is either too full or too expensive,” one mom-of-two living in Washington State told us. “YMCA after care fills up immediately and it is basically impossible to get a spot for one of my kids (let alone both).”

There are lower cost options available to families in need, but those also fall short of meeting the demand. Per Grant, data from the Afterschool Alliance shows that only 11 percent of after-school programs are subsidized by the government. While some providers might be able to tap into childcare development block grants for school-aged childcare and access some state funding streams there, the experts say the application processes, which vary depending on the funding source, are reliably onerous.

The end result is a whole lot of unmet demand across the socioeconomic spectrum, particularly for low- to medium-income families. According to an extensive survey done by the Afterschool Alliance, 57 percent of low-income families and low-income families of color report that programs are too expensive, with low-income families of color facing the most barriers to affordable care.

Even If You Can Afford After-School Care, You Can’t Always Find It

Considering that such a huge percentage of parents who participate in the after-school care economy do so directly out of pocket, it goes without saying that cost is the biggest factor when it comes to accessibility. Still, it’s not the only one. Or, as Herbert puts it “you can’t necessarily buy your way out of this problem.” Even parents who can cough up the often-exorbitant amount of cash are hard-pressed to find adequate after-school care that meets their needs in terms of scheduling and enrichment. There’s no denying that it’s infinitely harder for folks on the low-income side of the spectrum, yet the unmet demand plagues every working parent.

Herbert confesses to being personally surprised by the fact that “even very wealthy families talk about the pains of childcare a lot,” adding that “it's a different lens, for sure, but theirs is more about finding the care that they need, the hours that they need and, primarily, the quality that they need or want.”

We spoke with one New Jersey mom-of-two who missed the deadline to apply for after-care at her daughter’s public school, which meant she spent all summer on the waitlist, unsure what her family would do if her daughter didn’t get in (one week before her child’s first day, she was offered a spot).

 “Families are really struggling to find openings and a lot of places you hear stories of waiting in lines overnight just to register their kids and generally there is just not enough after school, out of school, before school, summer camps, all of it,” says Herbert. “It's just incredibly burdensome on families and it really requires people to have time and real insider information and things like that.”

Or as another New Jersey mom-of-two we spoke with put it: “When finding and securing after-care for your kids feels harder than scoring Taylor Swift tickets, you know there’s a problem.”

After-Care Programs Can Vary in Terms of Quality

Let’s say you do manage to find an after-care program that you can afford and has space for your child. Your next question might be what the hell your kid will actually be doing there all afternoon.

“The after-care at my son’s school has different activity options per day, but you enter via a lottery system so I won’t know what he gets into until mid-September,” a New York City-based mom told us, adding that the actual program won’t start until October. Although she is frustrated at the lack of certainty (“I’m a planner!”), she’s happy that her kid has options. However, not every program is so customizable. 

State and federally funded programs are most beholden to quality measurements and regulations but as the experts explain, they don’t always appropriately address the needs of the kids who attend. One parent told us that last year her kindergartener was in an after-school program that involved a full hour of quiet homework time; the 5-year-old hated it so much that this year they decided to just let her stay home and play or watch TV while they work remotely.

“After school at every site is unique and that's what makes it so special because you're geared towards the kids,” says Grant. It’s precisely this uniqueness that means that the curriculum can vary so much from program to program...for better or for worse.

“There are no standards like childcare centers have standards, but [there are] definitely quality measures,” Grant explains, noting that federally funded programs tend to use academic measures to determine the quality of after-care programming. “We want to see [programs] stepping away from that and really saying, what are you trying to do with the kids? And let's measure what you're trying to do. Because if you're really trying to do an ESL program, let's not measure the kids by their math scores, but let's figure out how to create an environment for kids to engage, get out of their comfort zone and develop all of these non-academic skills that are also key to academics.”

In addition to a lack of standardization and questionable quality measures, hiring and retaining staff can be another big issue. Despite the huge cost for families, after-school staffers are often being paid poorly and unable to get the full-time hours they need. Per Woods, “we're seeing very, very low wages and therefore massive turnover and a need to fill empty jobs. And that's what ultimately has implications for quality, because what you want is to have the best of the best teaching your kids.”

Ideally parents and kids could just walk away from a program they don’t like. However, with such high demand, many families are forced to take whatever they can get instead of what they really want.

For this reason, Grant recommends that parents “talk to the program directors [and] help design what the kids are doing in the program they go to.” And sure, it’s good advice to speak up if there’s something you don’t like about your kid’s after-school program, but realistically, many working parents don’t have the bandwidth to help create after-school curriculum (and arguably shouldn’t have to, considering how much they’re paying for the service already).

Why You Should Care

OK, so you know that after-school programming has some major issues in terms of affordability, accessibility and quality. And if you’re a parent who’s trying to find care for your child, you’re already invested in the problem. But what about everybody else?

News to no one, the after-school crisis has a considerable impact on the economy. Parents who are unable to find care for their kids have to cut their hours or leave the workforce entirely. The experts say there are no stats specific to after-school care but there’s plenty of data on how the larger childcare crisis impacts the economy and it’s not hard to extrapolate (a recent study from ReadyNation found that a lack of adequate childcare translates to the economy losing out on an estimated $122 billion a year).

Woods says that summer care is the closest thing to look at, partly because it’s coming from the same funding pool, and that picture is pretty bleak: “A National Bureau of Economic Research paper that came out earlier this year effectively said that during this period from May to July when kids are out of school, the employment to population ratio of women who are working declines by 1.1 percentage points and increases for men, and women's weekly earnings decline by 3.3 percent over the summer, and that's five times the decline for men.” That’s an everyone problem because when families lose income due to inadequate childcare, they consume less—and businesses and taxpayers take a hit.

Ultimately, “we know that parents are infinitely more productive—to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year—when they know their kids are safe after school. But it's also about enrichment. After-school care is really creating opportunities for kids to be successful when they enter the workforce themselves,” says Grant. Because, yes, parents rely on after-school care as a replacement for standard childcare so they can remain in the workforce—but it is also a valued form of enrichment that research shows leads to positive outcomes when done properly.

A 2022 study published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology found that participation in high-quality after-school programs is linked to improved academic performance, behavioral functioning and social skills among younger elementary school students and decreased delinquency, improved work habits and prosocial behavior among older, middle school children. The same study determined perceived quality to be an important factor with regards to positive outcomes and that “potential benefits of program participation may be compromised by inadequate resources [and] frequent staff turnover...”

Indeed, “decades of research reveal robust psychosocial and academic benefits of organized after-school programs…” and those are benefits that impact a generation and society as a whole.

Figuring out what to do with kids after school is out and the workday ends is mentally and financially draining—but it doesn’t have to be. As for a solution, all three experts agree that what we need is more public funding. Herbert recommends that parents find organizations that are advocating to improve the system (Neighborhood Villages is one of them) and then find ways to get involved. And if the idea of adding more to your ever-growing to-do list feels impossible, know that there are lots of ways—big and small—to advocate for change. “Don’t reinvent the wheel. Hop in on efforts that are already underway because they're building a lot of momentum and just really need more manpower.”

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Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...