Gotham Gazette

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The Deadline to Register to Vote is Friday; Here's How to Get Registered and Vote

register people day

City workers looking to register people to vote (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The 2020 general election is well underway, and the deadline to register to vote in it in New York is this Friday, October 9.

New Yorkers can check their registration status by using this online tool or, if they live in the city, calling the city Board of Elections at 1-866-868-3692.

To register, or to update a registration with a new address, New Yorkers can print out voter registration forms, fill them out, and send them to their local Board of Elections office — there’s one in each borough. New Yorkers can also pick up voter registration forms at their local Board of Elections office and complete them in person. The form is available in 16 languages.

New Yorkers who have Department of Motor Vehicles-issued licenses or identifications can register to vote online. (Legislation that would allow all eligible New York City residents to register to vote online recently passed the State Senate, but stalled in the Assembly for unclear reasons.)

The New York City Campaign Finance Board, which runs voter outreach and education through its NYC Votes initiative, has reported a sharp decline in voter registration this year as compared to 2016, likely because of the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic to outreach efforts — but there’s still time for that to change.

The fast-approaching deadline for voter registration also means that Election Day is less than a month away. New Yorkers can vote in the 2020 election — which includes races for President and Vice President, House of Representatives, State Legislature, and more — in several ways.

Voters can participate either through absentee voting by mail, in-person early voting October 24 through November 1, or in-person voting on Election Day, November 3. Voters’ early voting poll site and Election Day poll site are often different, and early voting hours vary: check your poll site(s) here and see early voting days and hours here. On Election Day, poll sites are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. in New York City.

As election administrators expect a surge of overall voting, including much more absentee balloting than usual amid universal expansion of that option and potentially long lines on Election Day, officials and voting advocates have been encouraging voters to vote early if possible to avoid both the potentially dangerous crowds of Election Day and the potential confusion of absentee voting.

Sabrina Castillo, outreach director for the New York City Campaign Finance Board, suggests every New Yorker make a voting plan. “Making a plan for voting is always a good idea,” she said in an interview, “because studies show that people who make a plan are more likely to actually cast a ballot than those who don’t.” Castillo also recommends making alternative voting plans, especially considering the pandemic. “Your early voting poll site might not be the same as your day-of,” Castillo added, “so that’s why it’s important to plan.”

While this Friday is the voter registration deadline, other deadlines are also on the horizon.

October 27 is the last day to apply online, email, postmark, or fax an absentee ballot application. Even if a voter cast a ballot by mail in the June primary, voters concerned about catching or spreading COVID-19 must again apply for absentee ballots for the general, citing “temporary illness” as their reason on the application. The New York State Board of Elections offers more information on requesting an absentee ballot.

The absentee ballot itself must be postmarked by Election Day and received by the Board of Elections by November 10 in order to count.

Voters concerned that their ballot may not arrive in time to be counted or disqualified for other reasons that have at times undermined absentee balloting may choose to vote in-person, even if they already sent a ballot by mail — the Board of Elections will make sure nobody’s vote counts twice, and an in-person vote always supersedes a mailed vote. Voters can also bring absentee ballots to a poll site or the Board of Elections by Election Day. “There should be drop boxes there,” Castillo said, so that “you’re not actually going in.”

by Lauren Hakimi, Gotham Gazette

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'I Don't Trust What The Department of Education Is Saying': Parents of Color Choose All-Remote Learning at Higher Rates

remote learning NYC schools

Remote learning in action (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Confidence in the New York City Department of Education and other local leaders is low for Yalena Figueroa, a Hispanic mother of two public school students learning remotely this school year from Astoria, Queens.

Figueroa wanted to send her fifth-grader and ninth-grader back to school, especially her teenager starting at a new high school. However, due to the concerns raised by teachers and news outlets, she said remote learning was a no-brainer for her. Both Figueroa and her teenage daughter are immunocompromised, and her primary concerns with school reopening include the cleaning and ventilation of classrooms. “I don’t trust what the Department of Education is saying about school safety. I trust the judgment of teachers,” she said. “We're not getting the straight answers we should be getting as parents.”

Her children are two of the roughly 480,000 students -- about 48% of the city’s 1 million (non-charter school) public school students -- who have been signed up by their parents and guardians for all-remote learning, with another about 520,000 (52%) students enrolled in “blended learning,” with some days in school buildings and some days remote each week.

Data from the Department of Education accumulated through September 25 shows parents of color are more likely than white parents to be cautious of in-person instruction, though there are variances among parents of color, some of which mirror the fact that Black and Hispanic New Yorkers have been disproportionately sickened and killed by COVID-19.

Of the 480,000 students enrolled in all-remote learning about 39% are Hispanic, 24% are Asian, 21% are Black, and 11% are white. According to overall public school enrollment from the 2019-2020 school year, 41% of city students were Hispanic, 22% were Black, 18% were Asian, and 16% were white. So while all-remote learning sign-ups by racial/ethnic groups is comparable to the larger student populations for Black and Hispanic enrollment, there is a significant difference for Asian and white students, with a higher proportion of Asian students and a smaller proportion of white students choosing all-remote.

Taking into account overall student enrollment figures and the remote learning data, about 64% of all Asian students in New York City’s public schools were signed up for all-remote learning to start this school year. It is about 46% of all Black students and 45% of all Hispanic students also in solely online classes, compared to about 33% of all white students. 

According to interviews with several Black, Hispanic, and Asian public school parents, their reasons for opting their children into all-remote school to start this school year range from distrust in city leaders, health and safety concerns, consistency in education, and overall low confidence in reopening school buildings.

As Mayor Bill de Blasio repeatedly pushed back the start of in-person classes for this school year, readying for the return of students for the first time since schools were shut down in March, the number of all-remote students grew steadily.

De Blasio announced a delay for the second time on September 17, saying students would return in increments, starting with the very youngest and some special needs students on September 21. Students in K-5 and K-8 schools followed, returning to classrooms on September 29, and middle and high schools opened on October 1. Despite the delays, the school year began remotely for most students on Monday, September 16.

The delay was at least in large part due to staffing shortages, according to the mayor and leaders of the teachers and principals unions. While need has been pegged at more than 10,000 additional teachers to cover all the types of classes needed and meet the requirements agreed to with the teachers union, de Blasio said the city would be hiring or otherwise finding already in city employ an additional 4,500 teachers, with more to come. The last-minute decision came after weeks of union leaders, principals, and teachers urging the city to look into adding more teachers and addressing various safety issues, and the mayor was roundly criticized for poor planning and causing upheaval for families trying to get a sense of what the new school year would be like.

De Blasio said the vast majority of New York City public school parents are from the outer boroughs and working class, and they understand the imperfect situation of school reopenings. “They are people who understand the realities of life and they’re not shocked when something this difficult has to be adjusted from time to time,” he said.

When asked specifically why he believes many more Black and Latino parents chose all-remote learning for their children, de Blasio said during a September 21 press conference that he was not surprised. “Communities of color have been hit the hardest here and have gone through hell, and if so many families have lost family members – “it makes sense that there would be a real concern and real caution,” he said. Noting that “the vast majority of our school children are from communities of color,” the mayor went on to say: “So I am not surprised at all that a lot of people wanted to start with remote out of an abundance of caution. I'm not surprised by the many, many people that want their kids back in school for many reasons, including, you know, that they have to get back to work or they really think it's best for the kids' education."

De Blasio later added, “I think some families want to see, you know, at least a month or more of evidence before they make that decision” to send their children into school buildings. “I won't be surprised if a number of families make that choice in November to come back in,” de Blasio said of the opportunity for all-remote students to be enrolled in blended learning.

A survey from August by New York Education Trust, an education policy and advocacy organization, found racial and income disparities among New York parents about school reopening amid the covid pandemic and its fallout, and leading up to the new school year. According to the survey, 66% of white parents and 68% of parents with an income of at least $50,000 approved of full or partial reopenings of in-person schooling, whereas 43% of Black parents, 57% of Latino parents, and 48% of lower-income parents supported re-starting in-person school of some kind.

“This disparity is driven by higher fears among parents of color that their child or another family member will contract coronavirus, and less overall confidence in schools,” the survey found. Non-white racial and ethnic groups in New York City have been far more likely to be victims of the virus which can be linked to why more parents of color are choosing to keep their children home as in-person school has become. People of color are more likely to live in crowded households, fill jobs as essential workers thus heightening exposure to more people, have access to worse health care, and have pre-existing health conditions that make them more susceptible to harsher consequences of the coronavirus.

The rising infection rates and risk of contracting the virus inside schools prompted Jennie Tsang, a Chinese parent from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn to keep her son all remote. “No one else in my family has to be out yet, there was no reason to just have my son getting potentially exposed,” she said. Tsang worries the procedures to keep sick children and faculty isolated are subpar. She said consistent testing makes more sense than random testing. The Department of Education “was figuring things out week by week,” Tsang said, “They had six months to plan for what reopenings would look like.”

Similarly, Stephanie Gonzalez, Hispanic mother of two and a member of the District 24 Community Education Council is also uneasy with sending her kids back to elementary school in Elmhurst, Queens due to the city’s disorganization. “It’s the same circle we’re in,” she said referring to the mayor’s delayed decision in March to close schools during the height of the pandemic and how reopening has gone.

School building ventilation continues to be a major concern for Gonzalez, although the city inspected every school at the request of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the teachers union. A hundred teams of inspectors had eight days to check ventilators, windows, fans, and ensure proper airflow throughout the classrooms and buildings. The time given to inspectors was not enough for a thorough job, Gonzalez said. The city “needs to continually check everything at least for a couple of days to make sure everything is working,” said Gonzalez, especially of the older buildings.

“Confidence in schools’ safety precautions falls along racial lines, with Black and Latinx parents less likely to be confident in the health and safety precautions their child’s school has planned for the fall,” the New York Education Trust survey found. For Tracy Gray, a Black parent who is the education chair of the Brooklyn NAACP, the decision to keep her high-schooler all-remote was due to various concerns like physical and mental health, resources for both students and staff, and protocols inside the buildings.

The time preparing to reopen schools could’ve been better spent, Gray said. “Once school ended in June, if the focus could’ve been let’s make sure everybody has everything they need for remote learning,” it would’ve been more beneficial than rushing school reopenings.

The Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group led by parents with close ties to the teachers union, agrees. “[I]f we had invested in remote learning at the outset, we would have been able to better prepare for more equitable access to remote education now,” AQE said in a statement, “providing the necessary training and materials for families, students, and educators to thrive.”

For a period of time, the state government withheld 20% of local aid including regular payments to school districts in New York due to tax revenue losses amid the coronavirus-spurred recession. After the teachers union sued Governor Andrew Cuomo over the cuts, the state announced it will make full payments for September. However, without federal funding, the governor has warned that permanent budgets cuts could be on the way. Chalkbeat reported a potential $2.3 billion cuts to city schools could be disastrous for schools and force them to return to strictly remote learning and lay off up to 9,000 teachers, according to warnings made earlier this year by city schools Chancellor Richard Carranza.

“We demand our students must not return to the old normal, the NAACP demands a new normal be developed and established where public schools do not fail children and families,” states an NAACP resolution that Gray referenced, voted through at the 111th NAACP National Convention on September 24. Demands by the NAACP include hiring teachers of color, redesigning curriculum, and public schools not reopening until there is full and equitable funding for all -- New York City is the only big city school system open to in-person learning at this point.

Schools are making the most of the resources available, but the lack of funding is leaving students at a disadvantage, according to AQE. Mental health resources is one the New York City Department of Education hasn’t yet delivered on, said Stephanie Carnegie, president of Totality of a Woman. “We cannot ignore what they have been experiencing and the trauma we have all experienced due to the pandemic,” Carnegie said during a September 25 rally in front of the DOE headquarters in Manhattan demanding parents and students of color be better included in conversations around reopening schools.

Carnegie posed a question for Mayor de Blasio and the Department of Education, asking, “What systems and plans are in place to support the mental and social-emotional well-being of students returning to school in the midst of a pandemic and social unrest?”

The DOE has put forth several plans, such as the Bridge to School initiative, aimed at helping students cope with grief, educating instructors on trauma, and more, though the city has been criticized by several advocacy groups for not being specific and thorough enough about the available services. 

At the rally, Carnegie was joined by groups such as AQE, Parents Supporting Parents NY, Real Dads Network and others Black and brown parents and children. They chanted “Whose schools? Our schools.” Speakers including leaders of advocacy groups, public school parents and students spoke about the exclusion of their voices in decisions like the structure of blended and remote learning, and called attention to their needs such as access to working laptops and wireless connection that have yet to be fully solved by the DOE.

They were joined by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who gave a speech on the racial disparities in the educational system and called for a seat at the table for parents of color. “There is no way you’re going to move in a manner that you’re moving in and ignoring the voices of Black and brown parents that had to already go through the disproportionate reaction during COVID-19. This is a civil rights violation that is happening,” Adams said.

“Lack of consistency, lack of clarity, inability to communicate is unacceptable,” said Adams, who is running for mayor in next year’s election, who also discussed internet access in homeless shelters and services for special needs students.

Although white parents are generally more trusting of the reopening of school buildings, parents like Rebbeca West, from Astoria, Queens are doubtful. She opted for all-remote learning for her two kids due to uncertainty in the Department of Education’s reopening plans. “Once they came out with the blended model, my husband and I knew it would be super problematic,” she said. There aren't the same kind of interruptions with the all-online route, said West, who considers herself lucky because her schedule allows her to be at home with her children, though she does have her own work to do.

Consistency in education is crucial, according to Demaris Che, a Hispanic mother of two public school students learning all-online. Che said the first week of classes went well and is impressed with the support her sons are receiving and won’t be switching to blended in the coming months.

Taking public transportation to school is a major concern for her as well. “It makes no sense for me to send him to school if he is going to get the same education at home,” Che said of one of her kids. “With in-person learning, students are not getting one consistent teacher, which shifted me away from the hybrid model.”

Hybrid students attend in-person classes one to three times a week and can switch to remote at any point of the school-year. All-remote students will have certain times during the year when their parents can switch them into blended learning, starting in November when de Blasio said he expected to see an influx of those who see attending school in-person is safe.

By Afia Eama, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Administration Fails to Provide Proper Reentry Services for Those Leaving Jail Amid Pandemic, Providers Say

crim just rel

The mayor at a jails to jobs announcement (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

For Julio Medina, the onset of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City was going to pose a unique set of challenges. As executive director at the Exodus Transitional Community, Medina focuses on support and services for the formerly incarcerated, or re-entry services. When Rikers Island became one of the most densely COVID-19-infected areas, the city released over 1,500 people either being detained pre-trial or toward the end of their short sentences. But, advocates and service-providers say, a lack of coordination among city agencies in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and between the city and service providers has deprived many of those released amid the height of the covid outbreak stable housing, medical care, and other essential services.

Medina, who is formerly incarcerated himself, has been working in and out of hotels used to provide housing to the recently-incarcerated since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in New York. After he got a call from the mayor’s administration, he’s been running services in hotels where the city is paying to house people released from jail amid the pandemic but who have no housing to head to. The challenge worsened given they had to scramble to secure benefits for the recently-incarcerated, especially medical care and personal identification. 

“We didn’t know how many people would be released,” Medina said in an interview. “Some people required medication -- we didn’t know what they were because they were released without documentation, and they couldn’t pick up their ID cards. My staff was trying to go back to Rikers and get their property, and something as basic as that was hard to do.” 

Medina was also informed that those who came to the hotels from Rikers were tested and not positive for COVID-19. However, he said there were 8-10 people in one hotel that they thought demonstrated some covid symptoms and told to quarantine. A lot of the confusion, he said, could have been avoided if there was stronger communication between the medical unit at Rikers and the various city agencies that provide essential services to those released from city jails.

Medina is among the many service providers who say that the de Blasio administration is setting them and the recently-incarcerated up to fail through a lack of communication and coordination.

Leading the call among advocates for a better system is The Faith Communities for Just Re-Entry, a diverse coalition of faith leaders advocating for the just treatment of people released from city jails. The coalition is calling for access to stable housing, medication, and COVID-19 testing for those released from Rikers Island jails, as well as better coordination among city agencies to provide essential services. The policy platform demands provision of identification upon release, transition of people’s health-care needs from Rikers, testing every individual for COVID-19 during the discharge process, ending the permanent exclusion policy by the city’s public housing authority, NYCHA, and dealing with landlord discrimination against the formerly incarcerated.

In 2017, de Blasio announced that by the end of that year, every person in the Department of Correction’s custody would receive reentry services to help connect them with jobs and opportunities outside of jail. This would be done in collaboration with the New York City Diversion and Re-Entry Council including city government agency representatives, the courts, district attorneys, public defenders, service providers, members of the faith community, formerly incarcerated individuals, and advocates. Those leaving incarceration would be matched with effective service interventions before and after jail. But according to service-providers and other experts, not enough is being done to ensure housing and medical care, especially for the larger-than-usual number of individuals released amid pandemic concerns. 

While some being released from jail went to hotels, others went into traditional city shelters. Reverend Winnie Varghese of Trinity Church, which is part of the Faith Communities for Just Reentry campaign, said the system has been fraught with problems that the pandemic has only exacerbated.

“The jail sometimes doesn’t give you anything back and all you’re left is with the coat on your back,” she said. “You’re then given a pass to get on the subway, but that is either old or outdated. They end up going to an intake center, even though this person was leaving jail  and we knew that they were. But during a pandemic, shelter services can be complicated. The incarcerated who are homeless end up in an intake shelter, where they have to stay for 90 days to qualify for housing, but at the time of a pandemic this could prove unsafe for everyone at this point.” 

Those who are recently incarcerated are given a housing voucher, but landlords, Reverend Varghese said, don’t take those vouchers because they are not set at minimum market rent and because of prejudice against the formerly incarcerated. 

Meanwhile, in the city’s public housing system, at New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the process for attaining an apartment or moving into one includes a criminal background check for any new resident or temporary guest. Per NYCHA rules, those who are arrested on misdemeanor charges can be banned from public housing for a minimum of three years, while those arrested on felony charges can be banned for up to six years. Though the Family Reentry Program has been made permanent by NYCHA, few applications have been approved so far, according to Alison Wilkey, director of public policy at the Institute for Justice and Opportunity at John Jay College. This targets more Black and brown communities given their higher incarceration rates. “It’s like this never-ending perpetual punishment that people go through,” Wilkey said.

A spokesperson in Mayor de Blasio’s office did not provide a comment in response to questions about the re-entry process for the formerly-incarcerated, particularly those released under emergency coronavirus orders. 

When the covid outbreak was still at its peak in May, advocates wrote to NYCHA to waive criminal background check requirements at the moment many individuals were being released from Rikers to decrease crowding in jails. The city was also trying to decrease crowding in congregate shelters. According to Wilkey, NYCHA refused to waive the requirement. “We need to think broadly about how people can access housing during COVID-19. And when you have rules like NYCHA permanently excluding people, how can families support each other at this time or get a new apartment?” Wilkey said. 

“The pieces exist but it’s impossible to navigate as someone who’s just out of jail,” said Reverend Varghese. “Once you leave the jail, the jail is no longer responsible for you. The continuity of care has to happen while in jail. There needs to be a pipeline that goes into our jails and out of city services.” 

Medina believes the lack of communication showed during the pandemic. Those who were released immediately, he says, had no clothing, no medication. “We need point people from big systems to communicate with one another,” he said. “People wanted to help but it’s difficult to move things without getting 20 signatures in the bureaucratic’s just a simple fix.” 

Yung-Mi Lee, Legal Director at the Brooklyn Defender Services, said there was little clarity and no communication provided in the process of releasing hundreds of detainees. “Other than clients reaching out to us asking us what was happening, just knowing that we can help with coordination efforts would have made a difference,” she said. “We could have come in and helped with reaching out. But that requires constant communication.”

“This is on the mayor’s desk,” said Reverend Verghese. “And these are vulnerable, unpopular New Yorkers. If the mayor decided that this population was a priority, all the pieces exist within city government and their coordination is key. No department can do it alone.”

by Divya Karthikeyan, Gotham Gazette

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