Thousands of after-school programs closed their doors months ago-and a majority now fear they may never reopen.
Nearly 9 in 10 programs have long-term funding concerns because of school closures caused by COVID-19-and 6 in 10 are concerned that they may have to permanently shut their doors, a survey commissioned by the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, reveals.
Despite the bleak outlook, the survey of 914 after-school providers may not capture the full extent of the trouble programs face. Survey respondents were contacted in May and June, before a wave of school districts, including nine of the nation's 15 largest, announced this month that they plan to begin the fall semester online.
"There's great uncertainty about economics," Jodi Grant, the executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, said in an online meeting announcing the survey results. "Programs are losing resources and funding and really struggling to survive. We're really concerned with what is happening in the field."
The survey, the first in a series from the Afterschool Alliance, aims to gauge the health of an industry that served an estimated 10 million children before the pandemic struck. Now, heading into the fall, providers are bracing to serve only a fraction of that number.
Overall, the survey found that more than half of providers are unsure if the "worst is over or yet to come." Among the programs surveyed, more than 75 percent have laid off or furloughed staff members or cut their hours. The programs that participated in the survey represent more than 6,000 after-school sites across 47 states and the District of Columbia.
"It is really concerning for us," said Ayana Melvan, senior project manager for education initiatives at the United Way of Rhode Island, who leads the Rhode Island Afterschool Network. "Unfortunately, we heard that programs had to lay off staff, especially as they went virtual in the springtime."
As part of their efforts to remain connected with families, about 70 percent of programs were serving students in some capacity during the shutdown.
While some programs will remain sidelined during virtual learning, others may be forced to adapt.
Programs that do reopen for in-person services this fall likely will need more money to pay for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for staff and more space to maintain social distancing requirements-potential cost overruns that no program could have anticipated even six months ago.
In school systems that settle on hybrid learning models-a combination of in-person and virtual learning-for the fall, programs may have to hire more staff to serve extra students during a redesigned school day, one that calls for out-of-school programs to open during hours usually reserved for the traditional school bell schedule.
For weeks, Miguel Garcia, the director of Fort Worth After School, planned for an in-person, mid-August start for the district-led program that serves 7,000 students per day across 76 sites. Those plans were abandoned last week when Tarrant County, Texas, health authorities announced that all districts in the county, including Fort Worth, would only offer online classes for the first six weeks of the school year because of a surge in coronavirus cases.
Now, he's trying to develop a program where staff are live online for seven hours a day to meet with students.
"We've had to switch gears pretty quickly," Garcia said. "My gut feeling that it's going to be all of fall so I'm going to prepare my team as though we're going to go all fall with virtual programming."
Federally and state-funded programs, and those that rely on philanthropic funding, are more likely to have pivoted to offer virtual services, such as academic support or online meetups, or are doing what they can to deliver meals and other aid to families struggling with food insecurity and unemployment.
Programs that rely almost entirely on parent fees have been hit especially hard during the pandemic. When compared to all after-school offerings, the fee-based programs are almost twice as likely to have remained completely closed since spring and are less than three times as likely to have offered virtual programming.
At the time of the survey, about 1 in 5 programs reported that they were serving the children of essential workers, a service that would likely continue even if school buildings do not reopen soon.
"After-school programs have been a lifeline for our kids, for our families and our communities during these desperate times," Grant said.