Start of classes stressful for Duluth families awaiting slots in after-school care program

A shortage of workers forced KEY Zone to put many children on waiting lists.

Students from Laura MacArthur's KEY Zone after-school program raised money, filled, decorated and delivered 24 Brave Boxes to the St. Luke's cancer center in April 2017.
Teri Cadeau / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Many working families rely on YMCA’s KEY Zone program for after-school care at local elementary schools. But the program was filled to capacity within minutes of registration for the fall session opening last spring.

Jennifer Brady was teaching at the University of Minnesota Duluth the morning that registration began and arrived to sign up her son, Grant, now a first grader at Lowell, an hour after the process began only to find there was no more room. He was No. 74 on a quickly growing wait list.

Brady said her seventh grade daughter was previously enrolled in the KEY Zone, and getting her into the program had never been a problem.

“So, something has changed,” Brady said.

KEY Zone Director Melissa Fanning blamed staffing constraints for the reduced capacity and a more-than-250-family waiting list. But she said the program is getting more staff applications and has recently been able to enroll many children who were previously waiting for spots.


“Our numbers are looking way better now than they did a week ago. We have college students who are coming back into the area, wanting to pick up shifts, wanting to work for us,” Fanning said. “So, we have been able to take the majority of the kids off the waiting list at our Lowell site, about half of the kids at our Congdon site, and then our Lester site is probably the one we’re working the hardest to get filled and get staff in so we can take kids off that waiting list.”

Brady said her son was among those fortunate enough to receive welcome admission news recently.

“But I’ve been stressed out all summer,” she said.

Fanning said she sympathizes with wait-listed families, as a working mother with young children herself.

“We totally get that’s a stressful situation. But, unfortunately, we also have to make sure that we keep safety top of mind with our staff ratios,” she said.

Elena Foshay, Duluth’s director of workforce development, said "hundreds of families across the district suddenly didn’t have child care for the fall."

"And there were all these families freaking out and saying, ‘I don’t have child care for my kids,'" Foshay said. "And here at the Workforce Center, we were hearing from families asking, ‘Am I going to have to quit my job?’ Or, ‘I was planning on looking for work but now I can’t because I don’t have child care.’ It was having a significant impact on working families.”

Lack of access to child care should be viewed as a very serious problem, said Duluth City Council President Arik Forsman.


“It’s incredibly disruptive. It can result in somebody from a household pulling out of the workforce or delaying a return to the workforce at a time when our state has record-low unemployment,” Forsman said, noting that a lack of available labor threatens to hinder economic growth.

To better recruit and retain staff, KEY Zone raised its hourly starting wage from $12 to $15 in May. Fanning said the program also has been offering bonuses to staff who successfully refer new candidates for employment.

Foshay said she has been working with KEY Zone to help with recruiting strategies.

“We felt like we needed more public attention focused on this issue, partly to just help people understand that while there are lots of employers who are struggling to hire right now, for this particular group of employers who are childcare providers, it has this ripple effect on working families,” Foshay said.

As KEY Zone works to staff up, a number of families have been offered opportunities for their children to attend the program on a limited basis, receiving care perhaps three versus five days a week.

“We’re looking better than we did two weeks ago. And I think by Oct. 1, we’re going to look even better than we do know,” Fanning said of staffing levels.

Brady said finding care for children of all ages has been a challenge since she moved to Duluth nine years ago.

“I just wish, as a community, we could find a solution, because there are probably families that are having to make some hard decisions,” she said.


“Having child care is such an important pillar for a community. And my hope for Duluth is that all the different stakeholders can work together and find a better solution,” Brady said.

Foshay agreed.

“The bigger issue isn’t just specific to KEY Zone, right? It’s that child care across the board is really struggling with staffing right now," she said. "They’re struggling to find enough workers, and that’s having a really significant impact on families.”

Long term, Foshay said providing more career pathways for advancement in child care jobs could be a key to drawing additional people into the field.

Employers have a role to play, as well, providing some flexibility for working parents or otherwise running the risk of seeing people leave the workplace, Foshay said. She pointed to Maurices as a local example of a business making that tack.

“Many of our associates have child care needs and this issue is extremely important to us," said Maurices Senior Vice President Sue Ross, the Duluth company's chief human resources and communication officer. "We are continuing to be flexible in our hybrid work environment to accommodate needs and are partnering with various advocacy groups in the area who are looking for different options.”

The situation at KEY Zone is looking up from a couple of weeks ago, however, according to Fanning.

“We were all in panic mode — families, staff, the Y, the district. But I feel like we’re in a better place. Obviously, we still have a need that we want to continue to serve families and get more families in," Fanning said. "So, for us, the big push will be to get more people into our programs and trained, because we want to make sure that we’re providing a high-quality program."

From the column: "The pandemic exacerbated burnout amongst child-care workers. Safety precautions and quarantines led to understaffing. ... Workers were already experiencing burnout, and the pandemic amplified it."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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