PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — As more parents return to the office after the COVID-19 pandemic, local schools are seeing a bigger demand for after-school care.
Combine that with a major staffing shortage and it's leaving thousands of Palm Beach County students on waiting lists.
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There are 93 after-school programs at Palm Beach County elementary schools and district leaders said about 90% of them have waiting lists. That's leaving about 6,000 students, double the average, without those critical services and parents left scrambling.
After the bell rings at Hagan Road Elementary School in west Boynton Beach, Ruben Soto's job really begins.
"I love aftercare. It's my passion. I love it. I’ve never had a job as rewarding as I do now," said Soto, the school's aftercare director.
But Soto needs more people to feel the same.
COVID-fueled staffing shortages are leading to longer wait lists for after-school programs across the School District of Palm Beach County.
Kiwana Howell, the district's director of extended learning, knew the issue was coming and tried to ramp up hiring.
"I do attribute the wait lists to new families moving to Florida," Howell said. "I also attribute that wait list to individuals who are transitioning back to work, or families that are returning to work. Students are returning from virtual programming to brick-and-mortar."
It's leaving parents like Kim Meeroff at a loss for what to do with her kindergarten daughter.
"As a working parent, it's very hard," Meeroff said. "On the first day, I sat on car line for two hours. So that was not great. We were hopeful that something would open up sooner rather than later."
Meeroff's daughter, Harley, is stuck on her school's wait list, even though they registered back in April. She is now going to a private after-school program.
"They do pick her up in a van, so she goes straight there. And we pick her up at the end of the day," Meeroff said. "The cost is much higher than it would be at the elementary school."
"For every one child in an after-school program, currently there are three more on the waiting list to get in," said Katherine Gopie, who works for Prime Time Palm Beach County, a non-profit organization that provides resources and training for after-school programs.
Gopie said there are options if you are on a wait list.
"There are many other community-based programs that provide wonderful programming, and I'm referring to programs like the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club. Achievement Centers is another big one we work with," Gopie said.
The School District of Palm Beach County recently raised its after-school counselor starting pay up to $15.30 an hour to attract more employees.
Soto said you have to get creative and aggressive to recruit new counselors.
"I carry a couple of business cards with me when I go to dinner with my family or go to the movies or gym," Soto said. "If I see somebody who is working hard, I say, oh, they might be a good fit. Give me a call."
Other schools like Allamanda Elementary School in Palm Beach Gardens are taking to social media to try to bring people in.
"A lot of parents feel frustrated and I understand that. But look in your community. A lot of parents can recruit for us," Soto said.
Meeroff hopes that recruitment pays off to open up more spots for kids like her daughter.
"They mentioned maybe by the end of the school year, so I keep trying," Meeroff said. "I keep emailing and being relentless with that kind of thing. But I'm hopeful that they'll be able to hire more staff and let more children in the program."
The increase in pay for after-school counselors did lead to a rate hike of about $20 a month for Palm Beach County families.
The district is making a dent in the staffing shortage and waiting lists. About a week ago, there were 109 vacancies and 226 people who were waiting to clear through the human resources process.
As of Thursday, Howell said there are 88 vacancies and 250 staff in the queue to be hired.
"We do have school day staff that remain and work in our after school programs, but typically a large number of our staff are college students or high school students who are 18 years of age or older." Howell said.
Howell added the pay hike is making a difference.
"We do see an increase in individuals who want to work in our programs because of what they receive. So I’m excited about that increase because, for a while, we were stagnant with salaries. So we have a lot of expressed interest from individuals who want to work in our programs because salaries are more competitive." Howell said.
WPTV has complied a list of after-school resources for families:
- School District of Palm Beach County: After-School Programs
- School District of Palm Beach County: After-School Jobs
- Prime Time Palm Beach County
- Afterschool Alliance: How To Find A Program
In addition, the Early Learning Coalition of Palm Beach County is also available to help families identify options that work best for them. You can call the resource line at 561-514-3300 and team members will be on hand to work with each family based on their specific needs, like distance from work or home, transportation, and hours of operation.