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Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and City Councilors Marc C. McGovern and Burhan Azeem are developing a policy order aimed at expanding after-school care, following more than a year of advocacy by Cambridge Public Schools parents.
The proposed changes, first presented in a February meeting of the council’s Human Services and Veterans Committee, would expand the city’s childcare after-school programs by 170 seats in the 2023-24 school year.
Cambridge’s Department of Human Service Programs currently offers 20 of the city’s 27 elementary after-school programs. Despite high demand from working parents in Cambridge, the city only provides enough space for roughly half of the eligible children in the city — with a ratio of 710 slots to 1,378 students.
Eugenia B. Schraa ’04, a CPS parent and former Crimson editor, said she was inspired to advocate for expanded after-school services after a difficult personal experience with the city’s current program.
After navigating the “really confusing” process of enrollment in 2022, Schraa said she decided to write a blog post for other parents to spread information about how to register.
“I got flooded with lots of parents being like, ‘Thank you, this is so helpful,’” Schraa said of the response to her post. “Then, I got a lot of parents being like, ‘We need you to help us advocate; there’s not enough seats.’”
After this realization, Schraa said she worked alongside CPS parent Amanda Beatty to advocate for expanded after-school care, meeting with McGovern and City Manager Yi-An Huang ’05 to discuss the issue. Beatty and Schraa also circulated a petition to improve after-school care, which Schraa said had nearly 500 signatures as of Thursday.
The petition calls on the Department of Human Service Programs to create enough space so that every child who wants to attend the program is guaranteed a spot, to prioritize low-income students if spots continue to be limited, and to create an information dashboard on program opening and waitlist numbers.
The petition also asks the department to coordinate with CPS to ensure student transportation to after-school programs by bus or with walking accompaniment, or through “any other safe means.”
“We don’t want magic, we don’t expect something unachievable of the city — but we do expect them to be taking it really seriously and have a plan to achieve significant change,” Schraa said.
A pre-pandemic survey of Massachusetts parents by the Afterschool Alliance found that for every child enrolled in an after-school program, three more are unable to access them. Cambridge, having a higher average than the state and national level, currently enrolls 42 percent of elementary students in its after-school programs.
During the February meeting, Michelle Farnum, an assistant director at the department, said the primary obstacle to after-school expansion is staffing shortages. Farnum said childcare providers have struggled to recover from a workforce decline sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Particularly in Massachusetts, we have not fully recovered to our pre-pandemic rate,” she said. “Our recovery rate is less than other areas around the country.”
A national survey conducted by the Afterschool Alliance in spring 2022 found that 69 percent of childcare providers are extremely or very concerned about hiring shortages in spring 2022.
“This is not a Cambridge problem; it’s not even a Massachusetts problem,” Farnum said. “Still in 2022, providers of after-school care continue to be impacted by the staffing shortage.”
To support the existing program providers, the city’s proposal extends their temporary agency contracts to meet their fall 2023 expansion goals. The city would also promote high-performing temporary workers to permanent employees and partner with external recruiting firms to find additional full-time staff.
McGovern, who is working on the proposal, said “there’s still some back and forth going on” in finalizing the policy order, but added that he hopes it will soon come before the council.
The new policy order, according to McGovern, would direct the city manager to craft a three-year plan to improve the after-school program. The plan would seek to address issues including staffing, space, transportation, and special education, he said.
During the February meeting, Huang said that the city is “on the right track,” but needs to make decisions on how to make the best out of the city’s “scarce resource” of after-school childcare.
“I know that we’re still going to have many people on the waitlist and that it will really affect people and families and working parents,” Huang said. “I think there’s continued conversations for us to make sure that we’re grappling with this.”
Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan wrote in a statement to The Crimson that he is excited to see the city’s initiatives “after years of demands from hundreds of caregivers.”
“Expanded slots for Fall 2023 is only the beginning,” he wrote. “I look forward to the expansion of the proven King Open Extended Day model as soon as possible.”
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