NYC’s School Closures Are a Crisis of Their Own for Disadvantaged Families

A bus stop sign notes the public schools of New York City have been closed on March 18, 2020. There are 1,100,000 students in New York City's 1,722 public schools.
A bus-stop sign notes the public schools of New York City have been closed on March 18, 2020. There are 1,100,000 students in New York City’s 1,722 public schools. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Since New York City public schools shuttered their doors on Monday, Daysi Cuevas, a home health aid, has been waking up at 5:30 a.m., an hour earlier than usual, to prepare breakfast for her 16-year-old son with diabetes. “I try to do my best,” she said, “but I don’t know if he eats the food I leave for him.” Cuevas says she leaves their apartment in Brooklyn at 7 a.m. so she can arrive at work by 8, where she cares for an ailing elderly person. She doesn’t return home to her son until 6:30 p.m. for dinner.

The Department of Education (DOE) kept school cafeterias open for free breakfast and lunch this week to those who needed it, a service Cuevas said her son relies on in school. But Cuevas, who did not know about the free school breakfast and lunch option, told me that she is “scared” about where her son’s meals will come from for the foreseeable future. “This is week one, and I suspect for a lot of people this [pandemic] fell during a pay week,” said Natasha Capers, director of Coalition for Educational Justice, a parent-led organizing group for educational equity, “so people were able to stock up,” she said. But as the days and weeks go on, “what does that look like? Week three, that’s when things get sketchy,” said Capers. A spokesperson for the DOE said that starting Monday, 120 “hubs” will open around the city providing meals for students in need.

“I am one of those low-income parents,” said Grisel Cardona of the Bronx, a stay-at-home single mom of three kids in the public-school system. “I rely on the government and I’m not afraid to say it.” Cardona, who quit her job to take care of her kids, says the school closures have also stoked anxiety about food. “We get a certain amount of money for food stamps and people are taking food off shelves,” she said, “how will we stock our cabinets while this is happening?” Food pantries, she explained, can have more than 50 people standing on line, which Cardona sees as a threat to public health.

Amid pressure from some parents, elected officials, and the teachers’ union, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last Sunday that it was time to take “more drastic measures” and closed schools across the city. Neighboring school districts in Long Island and Westchester County closed their doors as well. But for low-income families (about 73 percent live in poverty), 114,000 homeless students, undocumented students, and English-language learners, school closures are a cataclysmic event. It isn’t that those impacted wish for schools to remain open during a pandemic, but the realities of life without a safe place for kids to go and learn reveal how integral the school system is for New York City’s most vulnerable and how so many social safety-net measures are tied to it.

The biggest school system in the country is now struggling to create a new normal, where the needs of New York City’s most unprotected residents are taken care of. But it’s not that simple. Next week, 93 regional enrichment centers, day-care centers and schools, will open their doors to the children of first responders, health-care providers, and transit workers who are in need of child care. Additionally, the DOE said in a memorandum that it would be identifying others in need of these services and extending to them. Cuevas, a home health aid, is also included in this group. “Domestic workers and caregivers do not have the same legal protections provided to almost all other workers in the United States,” Ai-Jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, pointed out in a New York Times op-ed last week. “Without access to health care, paid time off, or job security, they must navigate crisis and disaster time and again, without a safety net,” she wrote.

One of the DOE’s biggest challenges is disseminating information to those, like Cuevas, who seem to be missing it. The mother told me she has heard nothing from her school or the DOE about plans to provide her son with necessary technology or where his regional enrichment center will be. The DOE is distributing surveys that determine each student’s tech needs citywide, and outreach will be done through robocalls and online in nine languages. For families that are not on the internet, the survey will also be available at schools’ grab-and-go meal sites, which are at every school until Friday.

Yohanny Alvarado, a fifth-grade teacher just outside of the city limits in Central Islip, Long Island, is also worried about how her students will learn. “I have two students out of 23 that actually have laptops,” she told me, her voice quivering. “I have a student who was trying to do work on his mom’s phone,” she said. Of her myriad concerns is the leg up students in neighboring affluent communities will have. Right now, she says, teachers are supposed to use Google Classroom to coordinate student learning at home, but it can’t work if students don’t have adequate technology. In New York City, Cuevas’s son is among those who does not already have a Google Chromebook at school, so he’ll need one or a device like it to do his work. Some schools outfitted their students with these long before this crisis, and now the DOE has to play catchup for everyone else — not an easy undertaking.

For low-income parents of students who have special needs without access to resources outside of schools, questions abound about how to get the help they need. Two of Grisel Cardona’s three children are autistic, one is nonverbal. “With this whole shutdown, I’m worried my child will regress,” she said. “He relies on his occupational therapy and physical therapy and all this other stuff,” she explained, “but when he goes back to school is he going to be where he was when he had the services one-on-one?” The DOE has said it’s going to make communities who are most vulnerable its priority, but it remains unclear how much one-on-one interaction students will get.

Good Shepherd, New York City’s largest social-services program, includes 393 foster-care youth. “At one of our girls group homes we have a school on sight,” said Diana Noriega, who is assistant executive director of Anti-Racism and Equity at Good Shepherd. And students at the girls home, who range between 13 and 19 years old, are some of New York City’s most vulnerable and may lose some one-on-one instruction. Good Shepherd is concerned about whether these teenage girls, who are disproportionately behind grade level, will get the help they need. “Such a wide range of equity problems points to an infrastructure that isn’t built for the most vulnerable,” said Noriega.

And then there is the issue of safety. For families who live in low-income neighborhoods with a heavy police presence, an age-old anxiety arises around whether children will be intimidated or arrested for just being outside. “What’s going to be the interaction with law enforcement?” asked Noriega, pointing out that while the mayor has given reassuring comments, the issue remains “a question mark.” Coalition for Educational Justice director Natasha Capers echoed Noriega: “What happens when kids are outside? When they need to get out of this house? Or sit outside in the park or head to the basketball court?”

New York City schools have had to catch what our tattered social safety net does not. This crisis lays that bare. And now that the delicate ecosystem servicing 1.1 million students, including 114,000 homeless students, has been upended, it won’t be New York City’s most rarefied students suffering in the fallout.

Parents can fill out this survey for tech needs. Families who cannot access the survey online ,can call the DIIT Help Desk at 718-935-5100. Parents can also text COVID to 692-692 for additional updates.

NYC’s School Closures Are a Crisis for Low-Income Families