A recent national survey revealed strong support for afterschool programs in the Garden State, even as those who advocate for these programs and children's access to them point out the flaws in the system that the COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly exposed.

Diane Genco, executive director of NJSACC: New Jersey's Afterschool Network, said over the years, parents have come to think of afterschool programs, if not school itself, as a form of child care. That is why child care facilities were kept available to essential workers during the earliest days of the pandemic.

The problem is many of those programs operated out of school buildings, and with the schools closed, that access was cut off.

"If I open my building up, and I'm the superintendent, to the Boys & Girls Club and kids come in, what if a kid gets sick and the school's technically closed?" Genco said. "So districts were not eager to do that."

Other community spaces, like libraries and houses of worship, were also unavailable in the spring months. Plus, Genco said, those locations would have to be licensed by the state, which can be a lengthy process.

And that was not good news for the demand for these services in the Garden State. The Afterschool Alliance estimates that for every child in an afterschool program in New Jersey, three are waiting to be placed.

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As the summer approached and some restrictions began to be lifted, afterschool programs that ordinarily continue once school is out were often hesitant to launch, according to Genco.

"They had trouble doing it because they couldn't get the PPE, they couldn't get staff, because staff were anxious, and also if you laid your staff off, they were getting $600 more a week," she said.

To add to all of that was the issue of food scarcity. Programs that provided free food to children had to figure out how to safely do so even if they weren't offering recreational services.

And with virus mitigation protocols required at every step, pennies were pinched everywhere as providers did not want to charge parents even more for masks, thermometers and sanitization services.

Before long, Genco said, those in charge of afterschool groups began to exchange ideas on how best to solve these problems.

Then the new school year started.

The intermittent closures of schools and districts given COVID-19 exposures, and the premeditated scheduling of in-person and virtual days, threw a new wrinkle into the child care equation.

Genco said all of that can and has been managed, to a degree, but none of it solves the conundrum of learning loss, or as she prefers to call it, a "gap."

"These kids are going to have to be re-oriented socially. Many of them haven't seen other kids at all," she said. "Our programs are going to need much more assistance in terms of training and community support to provide that social/emotional support for kids."

Afterschool programs will eventually have to shoulder some of the load in getting children caught up, Genco said, but they can't go entirely academic. And many will find they can't feasibly operate at previous levels because of the massive revenue losses from the past 10 months.

Those parents who have been able to enroll their children in an afterschool program are overwhelmingly satisfied. The Afterschool Alliance's "America After 3PM 2020" report finds that in New Jersey, 97% of parents are satisfied with their child's afterschool regimen, and 89% support continued public funding.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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