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“I like building stuff,” said 11-year-old Isabella Martinez,* describing the appeal of her science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) after-school program, Girlstart. “In school we don’t really do a lot of projects, mostly reading. I like [after school] because it’s more hands-on. It’s being more creative.”

When the pandemic forced Austin-based Girlstart to go remote, the priority for Tamara Hudgins, its executive director, was finding a way to maintain that hands-on experience for the girls in her program, the majority of whom come from low-income households and likely have few other options for this kind of academic enrichment.

“Learning via the screen is a real challenge, for the adults as well as children,” Hudgins said. Her solution was to create physical kits containing all the supplies the girls would need. Before the start of every program, each girl receives, either by mail or drop-off, an entire semester’s worth of materials that correspond to the girls’ weekly activities, whether they are working on a DNA phenotype project or exploring the principles of aerodynamics.

“We built a rocket launch,” Isabella said. “That was really fun.”

Going remote but delivering physical materials is one solution to a problem that has plagued after-school providers across the country — how to continue providing their enrichment and child care solutions during a pandemic.

“The school districts are focusing on the school walls and the people inside those walls and [after-school providers] are outside that.”

Jodi Grant, Afterschool Alliance

“For low-income kids it’s really hard for programs to run in person,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group. “It costs a lot more to run a program now because you have to have all of the Covid interventions, the PPE and you need to have smaller groups of kids.”

In a pre-pandemic Afterschool Alliance survey, almost 60 percent of parents reported that their children were receiving STEM instruction at least two days a week in an after-school program. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed said that after-school programs helped their children to build social skills, gain confidence and make responsible decisions.

“One of our biggest fears in the field is that it’s not just the academics [affected by the pandemic],” Grant said. “Socially isolating kids for what’s going on a year now is a horrific thing to do to them. We’re seeing increased anxiety, increased mental illness, increased depression. It is absolutely clear to us that if kids can be with other kids and caring adults in person, that’s huge.”

A Girlstart student opens her activity kit for the first week of the group’s Summer Camp At Home program. Credit: Girlstart

When the pandemic hit, providing those supervised social experiences became impossible. After-school programs across the country were hit with the twin catastrophes of plummeting enrollment and the loss of their physical space. Many simply went out of business. Others, with the funding to do so, went online. Still others were left with the overwhelming task of providing emergency child care that they were not set up to offer. And a year into the pandemic, federal financial support has only now begun to arrive in the form of public education dollars set aside for enrichment.

The lack of systemic support at city and state levels has come at a great cost. According to a November survey by Afterschool Alliance, the number of students with access to after-school programs had been cut in half since the start of the pandemic. Of those who do take part in such programs, children from more affluent families are more likely to be enrolled in programs that are operating in-person than are their lower-income peers, whose participation tends to be limited to online models. 

Related: Nonprofits step in to help parents making ‘impossible choices’

For Hudgins, who runs Girlstart, the pandemic meant she and her team had to re-think how to expand access to the sciences for under-represented populations.

“[Pre-pandemic] we had 90-plus after-school programs that met at partner schools. We were reaching 2,750 to 2,900 girls each week,” she said. With schools no longer allowing third-party after-school programs in their buildings due to safety protocols, Hudgins went virtual. She launched Girlstart At Home in April 2020, beginning with weekly Zoom meetings aimed at maintaining relationships with girls already in their program.

Hudgins treated that early endeavor like a pilot program, using it to see what worked and what didn’t. The experience was invaluable for fine-tuning what became her online summer camp and then the model — dubbed Afterschool At Home — now in use during the school semester. But she knew that designing a program was one thing; ensuring access to it was something else.

“One hundred percent of the schools we are reaching are Title I schools,” she said. “Seventy-five percent of the girls we serve qualify for free and reduced-price lunch; 40 percent of them speak another language at home. We’re all about equity.”

after-school programs
A Girlstart counselor preps activity kits to send to students for their Afterschool At Home program. Credit: Girlstart

The pandemic has highlighted disparities in online access. When Hudgins started the virtual summer camp, she found that many students who had been provided laptops by their school districts had to turn them in when the spring semester ended. She had to provide laptops, tablets and even mobile hotspots to a number of her kids just so they could participate. Luckily, she had the funding to make this possible, with government contributions coming from sources like NASA in addition to substantial support from philanthropic foundations like the Overdeck Family Foundation. (The Overdeck Foundation is one of many supporters of The Hechinger Report.)

Hudgins determined that equity also meant stocking the at-home kits with household items that more affluent families take for granted. “We’re providing general office supplies because we don’t want to make any assumptions about what a family has at home, whether it’s a pencil sharpener or LED lights,” Hudgins said in late January. “To a certain degree, we’re now in the fulfillment business. We have 2,000 boxes going out this week.”

Related: Just 3% of scientists and engineers are Black or Latina women. Here’s what teachers are doing about it

More general after-school child care providers faced a challenge that was entirely different from Hudgins’. Many, especially those with their own facilities, encountered a sudden shift to full-day child care — a difficult transition, even for larger organizations.

“We have kids that have attention disorders or severe family situations that we only used to see for five hours and now we’re caring for them for 12 hours a day,” said Sarah Bolyard, president and CEO of the YMCA of Kanawha Valley in West Virginia.

“We have kids that have attention disorders or severe family situations that we only used to see for five hours and now we’re caring for them for 12 hours a day.”

Sarah Bolyard, YMCA of Kanawha Valley

Closed during the state-mandated shutdown of non-essential services, the YMCA of Kanawha Valley had to become licensed as an emergency child care facility to reopen, adhering to regulations including the minimum number of square feet of usable space per child and how long children must spend washing their hands. Once students were allowed back into the building, the hardest part was managing each child’s remote learning.

“Navigating virtual learning has been very challenging,” Bolyard said. “The kids are all on different [school] schedules. If you’ve got kids who are supposed to be on a classroom conference at 9 a.m., you cannot have them mixed with kids who don’t have one until 10.” Bolyard said that to keep track of it all, she and her staff have become masters of Excel spreadsheets.

Like many after-school providers, Bolyard has seen the pandemic’s dramatic effect on her program’s budget. Even as they’ve offered more hours of care, fewer families have been able to afford their services.

“We went from a $5 million-a-year budget down to less than $3 million,” she said. The only thing allowing them to stay afloat, she said, is a statewide reimbursement program that covers child care expenses for frontline workers. Without this program, which is only renewed on a month-to-month basis, “we could lose a majority of our kids,” she said.

For a majority of single-site, after-school providers, staying open was simply not a feasible option.

after-school programs
For their Summer Camp At Home program, Girlstart provided a kit with all of the project supplies their students needed. Credit: Girlstart

When Carmelo Piazza, aka Carmelo the Science Fellow, closed his 20-year-old after-school science program in Brooklyn, New York, last April the decision was as obvious as it was painful.  

“We shut down, per state guidance, right before our spring session was going to start,” he said. “At that point no families had even paid yet.” While enrollment income plummeted to zero, Piazza still had to cover rent for his storefront space; a sum he had watched increase from $3,000 a month two decades ago to $9,000 in 2020. The city’s public schools had already shifted to virtual learning, which dampened interest in taking his program online.

“Being on the computer with remote learning all day and then doing it for after-school would mean that kids aged 6 and 7 would have to be on a computer almost 10 hours a day,” he said. “None of our parents were asking for a virtual model.” 

Related: After mass closures, too little support, post-pandemic child care options will be scarce

For Sherri Hellman, who for the past 25 years has run Creative Arts Studio, an after-school dance program near downtown Brooklyn, the lifeline to remaining open came from her landlord, who agreed to reduce the rent on her dance studio.

“That was a lifesaver,” she emphasized. “If it wasn’t for that I would have lost my whole business.” Still, it’s been a struggle to stay afloat. “We used to have 300 families a week and now it’s down to 40.”

Despite the risks, she decided to restart in-person classes once state restrictions allowed her to reopen.

“Dance and movement is all about connecting; being able to see each other, being able to see the shapes and being able to deal with energy,” she said. “You can’t really feel those things online the way you can when the children are next to you.”

Located in a neighborhood that began gentrifying more than a decade ago, Hellman has long struggled to maintain as much diversity in her classes as she would like. And the pandemic has only exacerbated the gap between families who have access to her classes and those that don’t.

“It’s become a luxury to do in-person after school at the moment for families,” she said. “Affluent people can afford it.”

“To a certain degree, we’re now in the fulfillment business. We have 2,000 boxes going out this week.”

Tana Hudgins, Girlstart

Programs already aimed at families who paid out-of-pocket didn’t have to wait around for slow-to-come public dollars to cover the added costs of pandemic operations; well-to-do families with children were less likely to have high-risk older relatives at home; and those with white collar jobs were more likely to keep both the jobs and the disposable income needed to cover after-school programs.

Kisha Edwards-Gandsy, co-founder of the World Explorers after-school program, found the disparities also meant many families able to afford her fees left town. Edwards-Gandsy had been following the Covid outbreak back when the virus was limited to Asia. She began implementing safety protocols in her Brooklyn center, which also houses a preschool, as early as January 2020.

“When a lot of people were not taking it seriously, we had basically sourced information from Taiwan,” she said. “We started taking temperature checks, keeping classrooms separate, and not allowing parents inside our building.”

None of that seemed to matter when the city closed in-person after-school programs in March. Her center wouldn’t open its doors again until the end of June. And by then, large numbers of the middle- and upper-class families she served had fled the city.

“Enrollment was like half of what it was before,” she said. “There was a mass pilgrimage out of Brooklyn. So many families left for New Jersey and upstate New York.”

after-school programs
A child enjoys free time at the Museum School after-school program in Greenville, South Carolina. Credit: World Explorers Group

When the shutdown was announced, Edwards-Gandsy made the difficult decision not to refund tuition, but to offer a credit that families could redeem, with no expiration date. This allowed her to retain most of her Brooklyn staff and pivot to a virtual preschool model. But her true lifeline came from an unexpected place: Greenville, South Carolina. A former parent, with ties to a children’s museum in Greenville, suggested Edwards-Gandsy move south and use the museum space for in-person programming. She did.  

By July, Edwards-Gandsy had negotiated a revenue-sharing arrangement with the museum and relocated to Greenville while her business partner stayed to manage their Brooklyn program. Edwards-Gandsy hired local staff in Greenville and opened the Museum School with a summer camp offering arts, math and science activities inside the museum.

When Greenville’s schools reopened in August on a hybrid schedule of both in-person and remote learning, Edwards-Gandsy had to pivot once again, offering not just after-school services, but a full-day program where children could conduct their remote schooling in a safe environment under adult supervision. That was as an attractive proposition for many Greenville families.

“[Museum School] was a game changer,” said Adrienne Burris, who enrolled her 6-year-old son, Isaiah, in the fall of 2020. “My son has some special behavioral needs. Just being me and him alone together in the house for so many months when school was all-remote, was a real struggle.”

Burris said she felt like she couldn’t meet all of her son’s needs herself and that they both needed some space. “Being able to send him somewhere that was safe and he was excited to go to, giving us that distance, made it so that when we were together at home, we got along so much better.”

Adrienne Burris and her son, Isaiah, smile for the camera. Credit: Ben Burris

Grant, from the Afterschool Alliance, sees major obstacles to getting where she’d like the country to be in providing adequate and equitable after-school access. She said it’s frustrating that the concerns of after-school and child care providers are not being heard in the same way as other businesses. And she would like to see coordination with government institutions and businesses to provide opportunities for after-school providers in spaces like libraries, parks, community centers or even empty office buildings. But the biggest hurdle, she said, is that the pandemic has meant that school districts are preoccupied with adapting their own systems to serve unprecedented needs.

“The school districts are focusing on the school walls and the people inside those walls and [after-school providers] are outside that,” she said. “I’m hopeful that we can break that down and really start thinking about our whole community as an area of learning.”

This story about after-school programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

*Correction: This story has been updated to correct Isabel Martinez’s last name.

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