Adriana Miranda (left), and her sister Claudia Miranda walk their sons Cesar and Sebastian, both 5, to kindergarten at Zaida T. Rodriguez Early Education School on April 12. The sisters say they are excited to have their children back in school. Photo by Clara-Sophia Daly.

“Nightmare” is the word Megan Kilian-Uttam, a special education teacher at The Academy SF, repeatedly falls back on to describe her situation. “A total logistical nightmare.”

She’s a single mom to a first grader at Claire Lilienthal K-8 who struggled with online learning and is elated to attend in-person school two days a week. But the situation is becoming increasingly untenable.

On days when her son attends in-person classes, Kilian-Uttam starts her workday at 8 a.m. from her car while parked in front of Peet’s Coffee, pausing at 8:30 to drop her son off at school just a few blocks away, before returning to the shop for its coffee, internet and restroom. Come lunchtime, she drives to Claire Lilienthal, parks and teaches her last class using the school’s internet before picking up her son at 1:30 p.m., though her class ends at 1:40.

“I’m going to do what I have to do to make sure my son gets an education,” she said. “And I’m going to do what I have to do to take care of my students, but my health is out the window trying to take care of all these things.”

The after-school program her son was enrolled in before the pandemic would make all the difference. It’s how Killian-Uttam and thousands of other parents survived: They dropped off their children for school and, at the final bell, their children walked into after-school programs to be picked up once their parents finished work. Most of those programs are now shuttered, even as some elementary school students return to classrooms.

The lack of after-school programs makes life more difficult for many low-income, working-class and single-parent families who previously relied on them to care for their children until as late as 6 p.m.

Without them, parents like Kilian-Uttam are making difficult choices. In her case, she’s willing to forgo a reasonable work environment in exchange for her son’s ability to be with his classmates. Other parents without the money for a babysitter or a spouse or family member to pick up kids in the middle of the day have resorted to sacrificing work or keeping their children at home.

When asked why these programs are generally not permitted to run on-site after school, a district spokesperson wrote that “it was not possible to also plan for after-school programs in the time between April 12, 2021, when schools were reopening for the first groups of students, and June 2, 2021, when schools were closed for the end of the school year.”

The spokesperson cited the need to prepare facilities to host students back at school sites in compliance with public health guidelines and the district’s memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union.

The spokesperson also declined multiple follow-up requests to speak about some after-school programs that parents say are running on school sites or at off-site locations.

These programs were previously widespread in the district: The federal and state funded ExCEL after-school programs alone served over 18,000 students in grades K-12 in the 2019-20 school year, with the majority of participants coming from high-need zip codes, according to a report on the program.

Parents said that while they understand the school district’s concerns, an after-school program for parents who need the care for reasons beyond enrichment would be a game-changer.

“I understand it’s due to Covid, and they want to reopen slowly, but everything is still locked up, so it’s very hard,” said Danica Tubig, a single parent whose seven-year-old daughter is Zooming into classes at Redding Elementary that her friends are attending in person. “She really wants to go back to school.”

As a working single mother, she relies on family members to watch her daughter during the day, often switching her work schedule as a practice coordinator at UCSF or needing to dial up other potential caretakers on short notice when plans fall through. Redding offers an in-person after-school program, but it only runs till 3 p.m. — and Tubig doesn’t get off from work until 4:30 p.m. The result is that her daughter has to stay home.

About 65 percent of students eligible to return to school in Pre-kindergarten through fifth grade have returned to in-person learning — over 19,000 students in total. But students from low-income backgrounds are disproportionately represented among those opting out of the return, according to district data. 

While it is unclear why many stayed home, the lack of after-school care is at least one of the reasons. Parents are simply finding it impossible to manage both an eight-hour workday and a school schedule that no longer extends beyond the early afternoon.

The lack of after-school programs has also kept Lauren Davidson, a longtime San Francisco resident, from returning to work. She hoped that with school reopening, so too could her massage therapy practice, but needing to pick up her seven-year-old son up at McKinley Elementary School at 2:30 p.m. and then care for him in the afternoon makes it impossible — and paying for childcare is not feasible financially.

The inability to work has had huge repercussions for Davidson. At the start of the pandemic, she had to leave her job as a well-established massage therapist when her son’s classes first moved online. She qualified for unemployment, but it wasn’t enough to stay in the apartment she had lived in for more than a decade, and she’s moved in with friends while trying to get her family back on its feet.

“I’m vaccinated and ready. I love my work. I want to go back to work,” she said. “Having a quality aftercare program would allow me to pull myself out of poverty. And I’m waiting for that to happen.”

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Kate Selig

Kate Selig is an intern at Mission Local.

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