Gotham Gazette Thu, 26 Nov 2020 10:30:40 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Education Chair Mark Treyger on What's Next for City Schools 3 cm joins

Council Member Mark Treyger, right (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

November 18, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Education Chair Mark Treyger on What's Next for City Schools

Brooklyn City Council Member Mark Treyger, chair of the Council's education committee and a former teacher, joined the show to discuss the closure of city school buildings and what's next, including a proposal he has for how to restructure in-person learning.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

Max & Murphy · Episode 260: City Council Education Chair Mark Treyger On What's Next For City Schools

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Education Chair Mark Treyger on What's Next for City Schools Wed, 18 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
‘It’s the Best Thing for Him’: Many Parents of Color Choose to Send Their Children Back to School Buildings 1 school ag

Children at school (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

While parents of color have been less likely to send their children into New York City school buildings when they reopened amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, thousands of Black, Hispanic, and Asian students recently completed their first month of blended learning, which includes at least one day per week of in-person school.

When nearly all public school buildings reopened on October 1, after the city’s second round of delays, about half the city’s 1 million students had opted for all-remote learning, meaning the other half were enrolled in the blended model. Two weeks after reopening, about 40,000 students switched to all-remote learning, leaving city officials to estimate that about 46% of total student enrollment was on the books for some in-person learning. 

But the city reported that just over 280,000 students attended in-person classes in October, about 180,000 lower than the Department of Education’s estimate, based on last year’s enrollment data. The number of students that have attended some in-person school has since jumped to over 300,000.

The gap could be due to the Department of Education making the blended model the default, whereby parents had to opt their children into remote-only, and assuming those who didn’t actively choose all-remote would return to school buildings. It could also be in part due to a drop in total enrollment since estimates are being calculated using the previous year’s data and enrollment for the school year has yet to be released, even two months into the new school year.

Throughout the school reopening process, Mayor Bill de Blasio has stressed safety protocols being put into place and encouraged parents to enroll in the blended model. He has repeatedly reiterated that there is no replacement for in-person learning and explained that despite a number of hiccups and delays and major questions about staffing and the quality of instruction kids are receiving, parents should strongly consider sending their children back to school buildings.

But most parents of color, whose children de Blasio said he was most focused on given barriers and challenges they so often face, largely kept their kids home. Some said they did not trust the Department of Education, while others referenced health and safety concerns or consistency in education. Asked about the trend, de Blasio said he understood the wariness given how badly the coronavirus has ravaged the city, especially communities of color, but against stressed safety measures in place, including mask mandates, small class sizes, and more.

Yet at the same time many thousands of parents of color have decided to send their children back into school buildings. Parents Gotham Gazette spoke with cited reasons including the value of face-to-face instruction, additional care for students with disabilities, and trust in the teachers and schools.  

“The goal here, when everything is said and done, is to ensure that everyone has the right plan for their child,” the mayor said on November 5 at a press conference. “And really, it's either to be an all-remote or to be in blended learning, but we want real participation in blended learning. So, we'll be talking more in the days to come about how to make sure that every child who is in blended learning is getting that maximum opportunity to participate.”

De Blasio did go on to regularly make the case, and opened a window for parents to switch their children from all-remote to blended, but just as he was repeatedly pitching that opportunity the city’s covid positivity numbers were increasing, and the entire school system is now on the verge of going all-remote due to increases in the coronavirus positivity rate. That prospect has alarmed many parents whose children are attending some in-person school, and there are calls for the mayor to reconsider the threshold for school building closure -- 3% covid test positivity citywide on a seven-day rolling average -- that he set with the teachers union, but the mayor said Thursday he plans to stick with it.

Attendance, Enrollment and a Transfer Period
Overall city school attendance was about 85% for both remote and blended students, compared to 91.6% during the pre-coronavirus days, according to numbers released by the mayor at a press conference on October 26. Being marked present for remote learning days means students are attending virtual lessons or are completing asynchronous work. 

“Given the pandemic and the extraordinary amount of upheaval – that's not a bad number, but we want that number to go up,” de Blasio said of the attendance figures at the press conference.

According to the enrollment from the 2019-2020 school year, 41% of city students were Hispanic, 22% were Black, 18% were Asian, and 16% were white. Based on calculations using city data, about 72% of Asian students, 54% of Black students, 52% of Hispanic students, and 40% of white students are currently enrolled in all-remote education, with the complementary percentages doing blended learning (for example: 60% of white students are returning to school buildings). 

Mayor de Blasio and City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently changed course and announced that remote students now have one opportunity to opt into blended learning for the remainder of the school year, ongoing from November 2-14. The move was criticized by many parents and elected officials, but the mayor defended eliminating what he said would be quarterly opportunities to shift from remote to blended (students can move to all-remote from blended at any time).

“Parents have a lot more information and I understand any parent that wanted more information before making a choice – well, now that we've been able to show how our schools are working, it's time for an opt-in period,” the mayor said. “It's time to give parents and kids a chance to come back into school if they're all remote right now.” 

Although the mayor expects an increase in blended students in the upcoming weeks, a survey by Education Trust-New York, an education policy and advocacy organization, found parents of color and parents from low-income households that chose remote learning are less likely to consider the switch in the city. About 44% of parents of color and 50% of parents from low-income households have not even considered the blended model, compared to 10% of white parents and 28% of higher-income families. 

From parents of color who have considered the switch, “the driving factor was the social aspect – wanting their child to be able to socially interact with their peers and teachers, followed by the fear that their child is not meeting the academic expectations for their grade level,” the survey stated. 

Black and Hispanic parents, from the same neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, are more likely to be concerned with their children’s health, the survey states. The City reported Black and Hispanic people died at twice the rate of white and Asain New Yorkers during the height of the virus. About 66% of parents of color surveyed for Education Trust-New York said their child or another family member contracting the virus is at the top of their mind; that number was 60% for white parents.

Positive experiences in schools’ handling of the virus is lower for parents of color and parents from low-income households, with 67-70% rating it positive compared to 82% of white parents. 

During October, the positivity rate via tests conducted within the school system was 0.14%, significantly below low citywide numbers, though those numbers have been creeping up of late and the city school system will shut down if the citywide 7-day rolling average positivity rate hits 3%. That number was at 2.21% per data released Monday by the mayor.

Low satisfaction with remote learning is also apparent among remote learning parents, with about half of surveyed parents rating it as successful. Low ratings are “mainly driven by parents of color – especially Latinx parents. While 69% of parents rate remote learning as better than last spring, Black parents are less likely to agree (56%),” the survey states. 

Several weeks into the new school year, New York City parents are positive about their schools’ handling of the coronavirus but are not finding remote learning successful. 

Additionally, there is low satisfaction with remote learning overall and among parents of color. Only 40% of parents rate remote learning as successful (ratings of 8-10 on a 0-10 scale, an additional 20% of parents say their child is not participating in remote learning right now) – meaning just half (51%) of parents of remote learners rate it as successful. Low satisfaction ratings for remote learning are mainly driven by parents of color – especially Latinx parents. While 69% of parents rate remote learning as better than last spring, Black parents are less likely to agree (56%). 

According to interviews with Black and Hispanic parents of students enrolled in blended learning, fears of contracting the virus exist, but they made their choices based on factors such as having children with disabilities who require additional support, precautionary measures to avoid and limit virus spread, confidence in schools and teachers, and the opportunity for their children to receive face-to-face instruction and socialization with their peers. 

When asked about the fate of special needs schools shutdown in the red zones at a October 28 press conference, the mayor said, “when we opened our public schools, the first thing we did was focused on our school programs for special needs kids, our District 75 schools, because, unquestionably, this is where the in-person learning has the biggest impact and there's the greatest need. And I feel for the families, for sure – they’re dealing with so many struggles to begin with, we have to be responsive to them.”

‘It’s the Best Thing for Him’ 
Nafheema Miley, a Black mother living in Washington Heights, enrolled her autistic son in pre-kindergarten four months before the pandemic prompted public schools to go all-remote. Miley saw progress in her son, who is non-verbal and attends Mickey Mantle, a special education school in the Upper West Side. But during months at home due to the coronavirus shutdown, he regressed. 

When Miley heard about the blended learning model, she said she made the hardest decision of her life. “If I did not let him go, it would be more damaging to him,” she said, “he needs certain things I cannot give him at home and needs to be in a social environment.” Due to a large number of all-remote students at the school, her son can attend in-person Monday through Friday, which Miley is grateful for. 

Fears of contracting the virus are there but Miley isn’t as concerned because she so trusts her son’s teacher. “I wouldn’t say I trust the school per se but I trust his teacher,” she said, “we have a good relationship and text a lot so if he’s cranky, she lets me know.” Including the teacher, there is also a speech therapist and occupational therapist present for the class of eight kids, she said. 

Miley said her son has taken several big steps this past month due to attending school five days a week. He drank from a cup for the first time and tried new foods at school. “It’s the environment and the way his teacher does things,” she said. He is also trying to communicate more, she said. “I was trying to teach him to say bottle and he’ll say ‘bababa,’” she said, “before he would get aggravated but now he’s really trying to put certain words and sounds together.” 

Her son has been happier since going back to school, she said, “it’s the best thing for him.” But, “if my son wasn’t in special needs, he would’ve done remote learning, it would’ve been no question,” Miley said. 

‘No Week is the Same’ 
Wendy Sanchez, a Hispanic mother of four -- an infant girl at home, two boys in elementary school, and one boy in pre-kindergarten -- enrolled her three boys in blended instruction because they require personalized learning accommodations, known as IEPs or individualized education plans, and are on the autism spectrum. The resources, opportunities, and quality of care affected her decision in sending them in-person but the blended model has been difficult thus far. 

Sanchez’s son in pre-K requires occupational therapy, which helps those with physical, sensory, or cognitive problems and doesn’t translate well via Zoom. However, at her two older sons’ elementary school, P.S. 212 in Jackson Heights, Queens, the entire OT department is working remote. “That is the one therapy he needs,” she said. Sanchez recently appealed to the principal to get the school to hire an in-person therapist. 

She said the therapists provided by the school aren’t trained in virtual therapy, which created a lag in quality counseling. Through her insurance, she was able to hire trained therapists to assist her kids, she said. 

Homeschooling and managing up to 30 Zoom meetings between therapies and classes among her three sons has become a full-time job for her and her husband, who is currently not working to support their children's education. Adapt Community Network Clearview School, Sanchez’s youngest son’s school, went all-remote two weeks after reopening, after falling in a “yellow” state covid cluster zone in Flushing, Queens. “It was very sudden,” she said, “We found out while waiting for the bus, they didn’t even give us prior notice.” The school has since reopened, in early November. 

The remote days are stressful because grabbing the attention of young children who are naturally distracted is very hard, Sanchez said. During the in-person school days, children are surrounded by sensory items, which has been challenging to recreate at home. “We lack space to give all three of them room for virtual learning and exercises,” she said, “no week is the same.” Sanchez said they recently purchased a small trampoline. 

Although her eldest son’s IEP was cut last year due to improvement, Sanchez is in the process of establishing a 504 plan, which is also about learning accommodations, but says she has received no help from the school. Recently, he was tested for COVID-19, Sanchez said, “he came home crying and screaming because he felt violated that somebody probed something up his nose. For a child with disabilities, that’s scary.” 

‘Department of Education Got It Right’ 
With three sons, one in high school and two in elementary, Lude Bonnet, a Black mother from Belmont in the Bronx, had what she described as an OK remote learning experience during the Spring, when all schools were shut down to in-person instruction.

Bonnet noticed a change in her boys since they started remote learning in March, she said, in that staying home hurt their socialization improvement and social skills. “They needed access to more people, authority, and the norm that they are used to,” she said. With some in-person school via the blended learning model, the quality of their education is higher because they have more access to learning life skills such as interacting with classmates and respecting authority, she said. Her youngest son has an IEP and prioritizing his services also factored into her decision. 

This past month went well, according to Bonnet, “seeing their teachers smile and be proud of them, all of those things make a difference for them.” Her sons in elementary school are doing well academically and enjoying activities offered in their after-school program. 

Bonnet has a good deal of confidence in both the DOE and the two schools, Bronx Collaborative High School and P.S.59. “When I say they support, I feel like I’m calling my big sister, [or] my aunty sometimes,” she said. The two public schools have maintained communication with Bonnet and supported her kids’ education, she said. “I want my kids to be the example of how the [DOE] got it right,” Bonnet said. 

‘It Was His Decision’ 
Full-remote learning was Angie Torres’ preliminary thought for her high school-aged son, but when blended learning was announced, her 15-year old was beyond excited to return to his school. 

As a Hispanic mother working from home in Astoria, Queens, with another kid in a charter school and a baby, Torres has concerns that her high-schooler could contract the virus, especially when riding the subway, and bring it home. “It was his decision,” Torres said, “with the agreement that he would be driven and picked up so he is not riding public transportation.” (There has been no evidence that the subway is leading to any covid spread.)

Torres said her son’s decision was a combination of becoming his own person by making his own decisions and getting out of the house. She keeps a close eye on infection rates both in the city and her neighborhood and will enroll her son in all-remote instruction if cases spike. 

When he returned from his first day, “I saw he was happy,” Torres said. The look on his face yelled, “I did something, I achieved something, I got out of the house.” 

Torres said she felt relieved when she heard social distancing was implemented throughout the building and there are only five kids in his classroom. His schedule is the same for both remote and in-person days, and he is handling the blended model well, she said. She and her husband alternate work shifts to support their children at home.

By Afia Eama, Gotham Gazette

Read more from this writer

‘It’s the Best Thing for Him’: Many Parents of Color Choose to Send Their Children Back to School Buildings Thu, 12 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
'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

Read more from this writer

'I Don't Trust What The Department of Education Is Saying': Parents of Color Choose All-Remote Learning at Higher Rates Mon, 05 Oct 2020 00:28:15 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Even After Delay, Will City Schools Be Ready to Reopen? village academy queens 600

Mayor de Blasio & Chancellor Carranza visit a school (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

September 2, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Even After Delay, Will City Schools Be Ready to Reopen?

Asamia Diaby, an organizer with the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), joined the show to discuss concerns about the city's school reopening plans, remote and blended learning, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

Max & Murphy · Episode 247: Even After Delay, Will City Schools Be Ready To Reopen

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Even After Delay, Will City Schools Be Ready to Reopen? Wed, 02 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
In a Remote Learning Reality, It’s Time to Answer the Bell for Equity first day school

School will be either blended or all-remote (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office )

The City prudently delayed the reopening of schools this week, meaning all students will learn from home until at least September 21. Meanwhile, nearly 400,000 public school families had already opted for their children to learn fully remotely indefinitely — continuing a dramatic shift in the way we educate our kids. All of our 1.1 million public school students will rely on remote learning this school year, either entirely or significantly.  

But the learn-from-home experience for students can be very different depending on wealth and income, exposing yet another painful consequence of our city’s systemic inequality. This is also just the latest hardship endured along racial lines for families dealing with the COVID-19 crisis; people of color make up more than four-fifths of those opting for remote learning as of August 28. Many of these families cannot risk infection because of pre-existing health issues. 

And those families are also far less likely to have access to adequate technology and Internet service. Nearly half of households living in poverty do not have broadband Internet. The vast majority of those families are Black and brown. Make no mistake, unless access improves rapidly, their kids will not receive a quality education. The effects of that could permanently impair those students’ ability to succeed. 

It is the fundamental responsibility of government to protect the people it represents from harm. Part of that responsibility is guaranteeing the right to a quality education. In this new paradigm, that means the digital divide is no longer merely an example of inequality — it is an example of injustice. Just like all New Yorkers have a right to healthy food, clean water, and safe shelter, they have a right to quality information access. 

If we start with that truth, current efforts to provide broadband access, computers, and other equipment to millions of New Yorkers will have to be accelerated. That means a significant investment beyond what is already being spent. 

But government budgets are devastated because of the pandemic-created economic crisis. Even if we prioritize spending on remote learning and this sea change in education, new dollars will have to come from somewhere. 

Local Internet providers have pledged to help. But they have also been slow to close the digital gap. These utilities operate at the pleasure of New Yorkers, who grant them their franchises. Verizon pledged to wire every building with FiOS in 2008 when the City signed a provider deal. It has not. It is time to motivate Verizon with a deadline. If the company does not provide access for every public school family that needs broadband by the end of the calendar year, we should go shopping for a new provider. 

The tech companies that make laptops, phones, and tablets also need to do more. The City spent $269 million on 300,000 iPads this year. That is nearly $900 a device with three months of Internet service. In other words, we are paying near retail to buy from behemoths like Google, Apple, and Microsoft, which have seen their market value explode during this crisis. They should be ashamed and offer us much larger discounts going forward. 

Finally, tech companies like Facebook and Amazon, as well as those listed above, are making billions off of our personal data. By requiring those companies to report their sales of commercialized data, and applying a modest transaction fee, we can raise enough new revenue to ensure every New Yorker’s right to information and the means to access it. 

State Senator Andrew Gounardes and I are working on a legislative framework to do just that. Once ready, the State and City should move swiftly to approve it. 

Consider the success of our levy on the world’s previous most-lucrative commodity, oil. Gas taxes paid for an interstate highway system and much of our local infrastructure — and the cheap transportation of goods that came with it. But that was paid by consumers. This time around, let us make sure that the corporations are paying their due. 

Failure to take these steps will certainly result in lower test scores and lost potential for our children, especially the most vulnerable. Even more unforgivably, it will assure an even deeper racial and economic divide than the one we have now. School is starting. We must answer the bell.

Eric Adams is the Brooklyn borough president. On Twitter @BKBoroHall.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

In a Remote Learning Reality, It’s Time to Answer the Bell for Equity Tue, 01 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
The City Must Restore Mayor's Misguided Cuts to Essential Community Schools Program 2 comm school

Mayor de Blasio at a community schools celebration (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

As New York City prepares for a return to school, city leaders are once again turning to community-based organizations (CBOs) to play a central role in supporting the reopening of schools. This is understandable. CBO partnership has always been a pivotal cornerstone of success for our young people and families and it is again critical to the success of all of these reopening plans. But recent, deep financial cuts to the sector – and the potential for further cuts – makes this untenable.

The nonprofit sector's capacity has been stretched by the need to quickly build entirely new program models that prioritize the health and safety of children and staff during the coronavirus pandemic. And earlier this summer, on the evening of the last day of the city’s most controversial and volatile budget process in decades, education advocates learned at the last minute that the city’s flagship Community Schools Initiative had been cut by $9.16 million, impacting nearly 30,000 students, their families and communities.

This decision was made without the opportunity for the Council or the public to weigh in about their impact. The de Blasio administration's lack of transparency with these cuts was an egregious display of abuse of the powers of mayoral control of city schools.

New York City’s Community Schools, which provide a range of social services in the school setting, have been identified by city and state reopening councils as an intrinsic element to the school reopening plan. As the Department of Education (DOE) prepares to execute a new learning model for the upcoming school year, the Community Schools network is an integral part of the process and the chances for success. However, the DOE has yet to inform community school providers how the $9.16 million cut will impact programming and services.

Additionally, the DOE has failed to inform community school providers of the role we will play in meeting the child-care needs that will result from the blended learning model. Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo recently announced that more cuts to school aid across the state are coming, which would cut $2.4 billion from New York City schools. Last week, City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza warned that 9,000 DOE jobs will be lost and all schools would need to go remote if the state decides to make these cuts. Schools cannot afford to lose the resources and support that CBO partners bring to the schools they work in on top of this.

Throughout this pandemic, the human services sector, including Community Schools, continued to provide crucial services for the hardest-hit communities, such as meals, trauma care, and support for parents, including with their children’s remote learning. These services have been and will continue to be critical to address the learning loss and trauma New York City students and their families are facing. The mayor’s own Education Sector Advisory Council emphasized how critical services provided by Community Schools will be in the new school year.

These cuts, which caught City Council members off guard, were implemented with no input from the communities they will impact. Mayor de Blasio and the DOE have circumvented a public, transparent due process – sending a devastating message to thousands of working families, especially in communities of color that were most impacted by COVID-19.

The rate of COVID-19 deaths in the city’s communities of color and low-income zip codes is many times greater than in wealthier, whiter areas. Community Schools disrupt the oppressive patterns of systemic racism that perpetuate de-prioritization and underinvestment in economically distressed communities. They level the playing field so that all children in New York City can have a better chance to thrive and succeed.

Restoring trust with families is a key piece of reopening schools successfully, but glaringly missing from the list of engaged stakeholders are the CBOs charged with providing in-school and out-of-school services. Among them are the community school providers who have developed deep community trust and developed expertise in running a blended model of learning in the Regional Enrichment Centers the city opened during this pandemic. The mayor and DOE should consider CBOs as an equal partner and leverage the trust they have built in communities and their expertise to successfully reopen schools.

Students, families, and communities need more resources, engagement, and equitable, collaborative partnerships now more than ever. Smart and swift investments must be made to support the provision of these resources, especially in our most vulnerable communities.

The community schools strategy presents the most cost-effective and evidence-based approach to reopen New York City schools in a way that centers students’ physical, emotional, and mental safety and well-being. To cut these services at a time when they are needed the most is unconscionable.

It’s just weeks from the start of the school year, and we’re still in the dark. If reopening schools, whether in-person, remotely, or blended is a priority, the mayor and Department of Education must restore this funding now.

Terrence Winston is Coordinator of the Coalition for Community Schools Excellence. On Twitter @CoalitionforCo2.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

The City Must Restore Mayor's Misguided Cuts to Essential Community Schools Program Tue, 01 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Save Our School Children: Give Them Philosophy farina tour school

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The question of how to resume our children’s education safely has understandably preoccupied parents, educators, and elected officials. And because the difference between the various models being proposed (‘blended’ vs fully remote) may well be the difference between life and death for a fellow human being, we need to rely on the best available science. 

Yet the question of ‘how’ to restart school for the city’s 1.1 million public school students is not the only one we need to be asking. Two others that demand our attention are what they will learn and why. And because answers to these questions are essential to determining how well our children’s lives are to be lived, we need to turn to philosophy.  

What students need to learn is how to think. That may sound obvious but what most students learn in school is not how to think but what to think. Instead of exercising their minds by exploring the many possible ways to be human, they quickly learn the value of knowing what is expected of them, what to repeat back, and what they need to do to pass the next test.

Rather than finding school to be a safe space for young minds to try out big ideas, too many students come to see school as a purgatory they must pass through before they take their pre-assigned role in a rigged game where success is measured by material gain. To allow such cynicism to take root is not to educate young souls but to impoverish them. 

Learning how to think begins with the realization that the most interesting and important questions in life are not black and white but grey, not resolved with a google search or by asking Siri but are necessarily open-ended. That means not only that they can be answered in several, often incompatible ways, but that those various answers reliably raise a multitude of new questions of their own.

These include so-called ‘big questions’ such as “What is fair?,” “Do we have free will?,” and ‘What is truth?,” but quickly extend to what appear to be more pointed questions, such as “When is government coercion justified?,” “Is adequate housing a right?,” and “What is the purpose of an education?”   

These are philosophical questions and they are the kind of questions that humans have been asking in one form or another for ages. The different answers that have been given at various times and places have shaped our history and have helped define our cultural identities. The answers we settle on give meaning to our lives by framing the choices we make concerning ourselves, our families, and our communities. The answers we try to live by determine how we deal with our failures and how we face our deaths. It is by learning how to think through these fundamental questions that humans learn how to live.

As every parent knows, philosophical questions come naturally to children. Still new to the world, the young can’t help but wonder who they are and who they might yet become. They are desperate to know what is possible, what is not, and why.

We need to encourage them in their quest to understand the human condition. Besides being intrinsically enjoyable, their philosophical investigations will improve their critical thinking, deepen their emotional intelligence, and lead them to be respectfully open-minded about diverse viewpoints. Making time for philosophy will also increase their understanding in math and reading

Given the value and benefit of providing young minds the time and space to grow, we ought to be placing a philosopher-in-residence in every school to facilitate student’s intellectual journeys. We should be allowing them to ask if animals have rights, if robots can be persons, and whether prisons should be abolished. We should be encouraging them to articulate answers that make sense to them and to attentively listen to their classmates who do not agree.

But rather than make such discussions central to our children’s education, we too often dismiss their big questions as irrelevant and a distraction to the lessons we unreflectively think they need to learn. Little wonder that as children grow older they ask these important questions less and less.  

And this points to the most important reason why we need philosophy in our schools, to ensure that when our children grow up they will be less like ourselves. Most people only encounter philosophy in college, if it all, which helps explain why so many adults don’t know how to think either. If we did, perhaps we would be leading happier, more fulfilling lives than we currently do.

If we learned to contemplate different alternatives and perspectives about how to live, then perhaps we would be able to converse respectfully with each other about matters on which we disagree. If as children we had been encouraged to think deeply about the difference between wants and needs, then perhaps New York City and its school system for which we are now responsible wouldn’t be as inequitable and painfully unjust as they are. 

Our young people, certainly those of middle- and high-school age, are not so self-absorbed that they fail to realize that the way things have been is not only unacceptable, but that it is falling away. The arrival of the coronavirus and the tragic disruption that it has caused, coupled with a summer of social upheaval sparked by the killing of George Floyd and fueled by centuries of suffering and oppression, has forever altered the perspectives of this current generation of students. They want something better, something more just and more hopeful than the city and the lives they currently stand to inherit. We need to give them the tools to conceive what that something better might be, as well as the confidence to go forth and create it. Their lives depend on it. 

Joseph S. Biehl, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Gotham Philosophical Society and Young Philosophers of New York. On Twitter @jsbiehl.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Save Our School Children: Give Them Philosophy Wed, 26 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
What's Next for the City's Massive 100 Million-Meal Emergency Food Program? 1 meal hub ps1

Mayor de Blasio at a school food hub (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

The uncertainty around how New York City public schools will be reopened come September extends to the emergency food initiative greatly expanded by city government during the devastating coronavirus outbreak that led to mass unemployment and food insecurity, as a large portion of the program was using public schools to distribute millions of free meals.

A part of the massive program that has distributed over 100 million free meals since March will likely shift as students and staff return to schools that have served as central emergency food hubs during the pandemic shutdown. While New Yorkers of all stripes, including families, could pick up “grab-and-go” meals at more than 400 school sites across the five boroughs five days a week, many others received more than 1 million meals a day through home delivery and still others received emergency sustenance through food pantries and other means.

With the planned shift in how school buildings are used, it’s not yet clear how the city intends to distribute emergency food or even what the need will be come September, in part due to the unknowns around the city’s economic revival. Whereas schools have long been a source of two meals a day for many low-income students and became logical food pick-up hubs during the shutdown, a school reopening where students are only in school buildings two or three days a week creates a complicated picture on many fronts, including food.

A month out from the planned reopening of schools, those leading the city’s emergency food program acknowledge that plans are not yet set for how meal distribution will work after Labor Day. While some students will attend school up to three days a week, parents can completely opt their children out of in-person learning, and although there is a commitment by -- but not yet a plan from -- top officials to provide students with meals, it’s unclear how many food insecure adults without children have been utilizing the school food pick-up sites over the past months and whether or not they will be able to continue to do so.

Grab & Go Meals
The city’s emergency program, called GetFoodNYC, is led by the city’s “food czar,” a position Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on March 21, when he said Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia would take the new role. Soon after being appointed, Garcia helped stand up efforts to make 470 Department of Education sites, almost all of which were schools, available to provide three meals a day to children under 18 (and, later, to families and then also adults without children as of April 3), and develop and expand other emergency food programming.

It is the school pick-up piece of the program that Garcia and the city have yet to make concrete plans to continue once schools reopen.

“DOE [Department of Education] is planning carefully around reopening,” said Department of Sanitation Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs Joshua Goodman, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “Until we know what school reopening will look like, we cannot know exactly what Grab & Go meal operations may look like – but our commitment will remain the same, that no New Yorker should go hungry due to the pandemic.”

It was only late last Thursday that de Blasio revealed the most detailed plan yet as to how schools will reopen, which includes measures to immediately close down classrooms where one or more students test positive for coronavirus, and to close down entire buildings if two or more students in different classrooms test positive. It also requires students or teachers who feel sick to stay home and allows for families to opt into an all-remote learning option. About 26% of families would prefer that option, no matter the safety precautions taken, according to a Department of Education survey reported on by the Wall Street Journal. For students returning to school buildings, it will only be for one to three days a week. Individual school plans are in the process of being designed, though they in part rely on what student enrollment will look like, forming something of a chicken-or-the-egg relationship.

Before they were closed, New York City public schools were serving more than 1 million meals a day, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office (IBO), with Garcia saying in an interview that New York City public schools are “maybe the largest feeding program in the country.”

“If schools are truly reopening, [the grab-and-go locations] are a lot less important,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a non-profit dedicated to connecting those experiencing food insecurity to services and advocating for legislation to address hunger. “That would certainly be a good thing in reducing hunger. And, you know, there are 1,600 schools so even if  that closes down 400 alternative sites, some adults may be missing out but far more kids would be fed so that would be a worthwhile trade-off.”

But that progress will be significantly complicated by the part-time nature of schooling for many students in the fall and the fact that untold number of students will not be going to school buildings at all.

When assessing the grab-and-go program, the IBO found evidence supporting Berg’s point about the benefits of students accessing food in schools, as the pick-up program did not serve as a replacement for in-school meals.

“While quickly established, the Grab & Go sites have not fully met the problem of hunger and food insecurity across the city,” the report states. “In the last week of April, the sites provided an average of 305,000 meals a day, well below the number schools typically served.”

However, IBO did find that nearly 90% of students were within half a mile of the grab-and-go locations, and more than half "were located in census tracts where the average household income was below or near the poverty threshold,” with the majority of sites located in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

The report is based on data from March 30, though, and the program has expanded significantly since. It also does not include other emergency food efforts besides the grab-and-go program.

“More than 400 meal hubs at DOE sites across the city are distributing around 500,000 meals per day to people in need,” Goodman said in a statement when asked about the IBO report, published at the end of July. “This is an incredible achievement, part of a broader operation that has now served more than 100 million meals since the pandemic began to ensure no New Yorker goes hungry. We appreciate the IBO’s role but are deeply proud of the work of DOE staff and the NYC Food Czar team.”

Moving forward, the city hopes the grab-and-go program will be used in conjunction with school meals. As although students will not be attending school every day, some not at all, the city is committed to maintaining a grab-and-go program that operates every day for students, according to Garcia’s office. How it will do so, and whether it will extend to families or adults without children, is still unclear.

That population of adults without children, as Berg alluded to, is one with few resources dedicated directly to them. Besides the grab-and-go program that is first and foremost for students and their families, GetFoodNYC’s food delivery service is meant for seniors or those who cannot risk going outside due to medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19.

It is unclear how large the population is of those who have been accessing grab-and-go meals at school sites but are not members of families with schoolchildren, and how many may lose out on free meals if the grab-and-go program reverts to being only for children or families with children, as the program does not collect demographic data, in order to avoid discouraging use.

Deepening Struggles for New Yorkers
There are more than 800,000 people in New York City who were unemployed as of June 2020, according to the New York State Department of Labor, maing for a roughly 20% unemployment rate, a massive increase from the roughly 4% at the start of March. This is just one measure of many indicating the extent of economic devastation due to the pandemic, and the growing food insecurity because of it.

Berg described the substantial spike in need caused by the pandemic as “better than the Great Depression but worse than it’s been in modern times.” He said that, although New York has made substantial and important progress addressing the problem, there are still hungry New Yorkers in need of further assistance.

“It’s certainly better than starving and New York City’s actually doing better than the rest of New York State, and really doing less bad than the rest of the country,” Berg said. “But when the Mayor says, ‘we’re going to make sure no one’s going hungry,’ that’s not true, either, because people were going hungry before this and they’re certainly going hungry now.”

From March 21 to June 6 there were over 1 million more unemployment claims compared to the same time period in 2019, according to a recent report by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The number of SNAP (food stamps) recipients increased by 8% from March to May, according to statistics from the New York City Human Resources Administration. Prior to the pandemic, SNAP enrollment had been decreasing, with about a 5% decrease from February 2019 to February 2020. The city’s massive emergency food program may have actually led to fewer SNAP sign-ups than may have otherwise occurred amid the economic shock.

According to the results of a poll by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), 35% of New York City households said in April that they had received food from an emergency food source in the past month, and 21% of New Yorkers said they were unable to buy groceries because of lack of money following the COVID-19 outbreak and its fallout.

Those facing financial and food insecurity who are neither seniors nor adults with children may turn to other resources meant to help anyone going hungry, according to Garcia.

“I do think that there will be a set of people that, due to the economic downturn, will need support through food pantries and soup kitchens and the grab-and-go program,” Garcia said.

Food Pantries
But many food pantries are struggling, too, due to the pandemic, with 75% of food pantries and soup kitchens serving more New Yorkers in April 2020 than in the months leading up to COVID-19, according to a survey by Food Bank for New York City. That report also found that 

“At the outbreak’s peak, roughly 40% of the city’s soup kitchens and food pantries were closed, largely because they are run by seniors who are at high risk during the health crisis.”

Food pantries do provide substantially less support to food insecure New Yorkers compared to government programs like SNAP, though, with Berg saying government programs support nearly 20 times more food than food pantries. Still, food pantries can be a vital source of food for those in need.

Ceasar Tobar-Acosta, who heads the food pantry at the Bronx’s Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, described the pre-COVID pantry as relying on small donors and serving 10-20 people a day.

“Our numbers shot up from us doing weeks of serving 20 in a day to us, as of last Friday, 150 people showing up a day,” Tobar-Acosta said of how things changed once the pandemic worsened, in a July 21 interview.

Tobar-Acosta said, besides the increase in demand and addition of precautions to prevent spreading the disease, COVID-19 resulted in the pantry relying on a new type of donors, namely large non-profits. It also received food from the GetFoodNYC program.

At one point, though, the food pantry almost had to close due to the increase in demand but limited supply. Of food pantries that did close, a disproportionate number were in the Bronx, where 50% closed, 90% of which were in high-need communities, according to the Food Bank for New York City report.

“As someone born and raised in the Bronx my entire life, it is very easy to see how…the Bronx very much captures why New York City is a tale of two cities. When you see all these resources, a lot of money, but then you see, hey, there’s a lot of communities that don’t get this funding,” Tobar-Acosta said. “When you’re already living in a food insecure place, the second a pandemic hits you are significantly worse-off because your community already does not have those supplies for a number of reasons. And the Bronx is one of those places where there are a lot of food insecure areas of the Bronx already.”

With job loss exacerbating an already-pressing crisis, Tobar-Acosta mentioned one customer of the food pantry who is an essential worker and works a 12-hour shift, but still needs assistance. Many community members are also said to be faced with the tough decision of leaving their jobs and collecting unemployment, or receiving zero-hour work-weeks for some period of time as local employers needed to cut back on costs during the pandemic. 

“Most definitely there’s a visible impact of job loss. We see newer and newer faces as the days pass,” Tobar-Acosta. “They can’t go back to their old jobs, because on paper they voluntarily left even though the other option was you don’t get paid.”

Those facing job loss will likely continue to need assistance, even as, hopefully, the public health crisis continues to improve and the city economy continues to reopen. Garcia said she hopes GetFoodNYC will be able to continue to “fill in the gaps” by providing increased assistance to food pantries. She also said it is likely that many of the food pantries that closed were smaller and may have opened back up since the height of the pandemic.

Support for food pantries and other emergency food efforts received huge boosts of funding from all levels of government during the pandemic.

Garcia said most of the funding for GetFoodNYC, specifically, comes from the federal government.

“We anticipate that the covid emergency is going to get extended nationally, just based on where we are,” Garcia said in an interview. “We have to re-up the program every 30 days under FEMA but it has been accepted under FEMA funding, so that has been what has underwritten emergency feeding during this time.”

The city also dedicated a significant amount of funding, such as a $170 million initiative, “Feeding New York,” announced by de Blasio on April 15, which Garcia was charged with executing. The plan dedicated funding to the Food Reserve (an existing emergency reserve of nonperishable goods that the city has in case of a crisis, like the pandemic), suggested that grocery stores require workers and customers to wear face masks, and initiated the scaling up of the food delivery system through the Department of Education and Department for the Aging (DFTA), an area where GetFoodNYC has contributed greatly.

City funds for emergency food efforts and GetFoodNYC have also come from through New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), which had a total budget for food (including funds for Emergency Food Assistance, the GetFoodNYC program, and the Food Reserve) of $73.4 million in fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, according to the IBO. That number is expected to drop slightly for fiscal year 2021, to $71 million, per the recently-adopted fiscal year 2021 budget.

In both years, city funding for food pantries and soup kitchens was about $21 million, according to IBO. For 2021, the other $50 million goes toward the Food Reserve, suggesting that the GetFoodNYC program will continue to be almost entirely reliant on federal funds moving forward. (This is not a complete picture of emergency food funding, as other agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Sanitation Department, are somewhat involved with such efforts.)

The city took other measures, too, to address growing needs including matching a state government $25 million allocation toward food banks for food and personnel, which was estimated to provide 2.1 million food packages each consisting of nine meals for a total of 19 million meals, according to a City Council press release. The city also deployed city staff to 14 food pantries short on volunteers.

And in addition to emergency funds via FEMA, the federal government passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provided the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program with $500 million on March 18. There was also the CARES Act, which provided $15.5 billion to support SNAP, $35 million for WIC, $38 million for Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) Commodities, $16 million for TEFAP Administration, and $450 million for food banks on March 27.

On top of that, Congress passed a pandemic-EBT program that gives families with children who would have received public school meals with electronic debit cards, something Berg said would result in around $400 million worth of food going to roughly 1 million New York City kids.

Home Delivery for the Most Vulnerable
One of the major areas the de Blasio administration put funds into through the GetFoodNYC program was home-delivered meals for seniors and those with pre-existing medical conditions, two populations especially vulnerable to COVID-19 that had unique challenges, besides financial stress, in accessing food — namely, the risk of contracting the disease while grocery shopping or picking up food.

Even before Garcia was even named food czar, though, the New York City Department for the Aging knew this would be a problem when the city closed hundreds of senior centers in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. DFTA immediately converted the centers to sites for preparing and sending out delivered meals to seniors’ homes, expanding on an existing meal-delivery program for those who are mostly or completely homebound. The week senior centers were closed, 96,000 meals were distributed to senior centers to then be delivered, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for DFTA Suzanne Myklebust told Gotham Gazette at the time.

But, there was still a need for seniors and others who could not risk going outside due to medical conditions that made them more susceptible to COVID-19, especially at the height of the pandemic.

“We do think that there is a group of seniors that one, shouldn’t be going out, and two, are very food insecure,” Garcia said. “And that their usual option of a senior center congregate food setting isn’t going to come into play for quite some time.”

Garcia and her team worked to quickly create the food-delivery system within GetFoodNYC, which uses drivers licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission to deliver meals from large distribution centers, helping to provide devastated drivers with income while also feeding needy New Yorkers. The program ramped up fast and began delivering 1 million meals a day as of the week of May 27, and from mid-March to mid-June the New York City government served 70 million free meals.

“I worked in government for eight years in the Clinton administration, a big bureaucracy, and the magnitude of what New York City did, it can’t be overstated,” said Berg. “They did in the course of a few weeks what typically would take government years to plan.”

The program was developed in part by enterprise software company Unqork, where former New York City Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway works as the head of its public enterprise initiative. Holloway worked in the Bloomberg administration during Superstorm Sandy, when he first saw the need to develop software quickly and at scale to address a crisis. The GetFoodNYC app developed for the current crisis over the course of a weekend, Halloway said on the What’s The [Data] Point? podcast, and made it possible for individuals to fill out a survey to see if they qualify for the program, and order if they do, and had another side for TLC drivers to sign up for delivery shifts, as well as an administrative back-end.

“It has been an enormous team effort across a lot of agencies to make this work, I would say an alphabet soup of agencies,” Garcia said in the interview. “And a real commitment by the city to make sure that no one went hungry. What you would traditionally do, like run a soup kitchen for food, clearly was not going to be our go-to in the middle of a pandemic, so I think there was a certain amount of commitment and creativity to getting this done that has to do with a real team of people that felt like this was incredibly important work.”

Although the program received some criticism for not initially providing kosher and halal meals, by mid-May it had 18 sites serving kosher meals and 32 sites providing halal meals, strategically placed in communities with large Jewish or Muslim populations. Another issue was questions of how nutritious the meals were, with some recipients describing accounts where they were given snacks rather than actual meals, as reported by Gothamist. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and New York City Council Member Ben Kallos of Manhattan introduced a bill on May 20 to develop nutrition standards for the meals in both the delivery and grab-and-go parts of the program. There have also been issues with delivery accuracy and waste of some meals that have sat in warehouses.

“We take food waste extremely seriously, and doing so is part of how we have been able to distribute over 100 million meals successfully,” Goodman said in a statement. “At this scale, we rely on all New Yorkers to let us know right away if there is ever a problem, at or by calling 311. We can often fix problems same day if they are brought to our attention.”

Garcia has also acknowledged hiccups in the program, saying “the challenge was also just dealing with the scale of the crisis at the moment of the crisis and the huge need that just went flying through the roof, and keeping up with that and trying to make sure we had enough food, food that was religiously appropriate and being able to make that sync together,” she said in a recent appearance on What’s The [DATA] Point?, which is produced by Gotham Gazetteand Citizens Budget Commission.

Goodman has also repeatedly responded to some of this criticism on Twitter, saying, for example: “To meet incredible scale (1M meals/day) we work with dozens of vendors - over 30 and growing. Some serve fresh food, some frozen, some shelf-stable, which is things like canned tuna, soups, packaged milk, maybe pita chips,” and “This is a huge operation of *emergency* food - but as Mayor and Commissioner Garcia stated, must be healthy and nutritious. If someone receives a meal that doesn't meet our standards, let us know at so we can fix and hold vendor accountable.”

Looking Ahead
Garcia said the need for home-delivered meals, especially among seniors, will likely remain for some time as COVID-19 makes it unsafe for senior centers to return even as the city moves through reopening phases.

For some of those seniors, they have relied on a similar to but more comprehensive program than the GetFoodNYC food delivery service run by DFTA, which has been serving elderly New Yorkers who need food delivered due to illness or disability for years, partially through a partnership with Citymeals on Wheels.

The budget for the Home Delivered Meals program (HDM), unlike HRA’s emergency food budget, did see a 25% decrease from $59.7 million in fiscal year 2020 to $44.6 million in fiscal year 2021, according to the IBO. However, some of that decrease is a result of a lack of discretionary funding DFTA received for HDM from the City Council in the 2021 city budget that it had received the year prior, according to DFTA.

“For 30 years, DFTA’s Home Delivered Meals (HDM) program has provided nutritious meals to older New Yorkers who are homebound due to severe illness or disability. This program has been operating long before the COVID-19 crisis and will continue operating long after,” Myklebust said in a statement. “This year, we issued an RFP to increase meal options for this program, including the availability of culturally aligned meals that reflect our City’s diversity, all while ensuring that meals continue to be high quality, healthy and nutritious. A top priority for DFTA and the City is that no older New Yorker goes hungry during this pandemic and that all who need meals has access to them, either through the HDM program or GetFoodNYC.”

Garcia remains hopeful about the city’s ability to meet need even if there is a second covid wave in the fall, saying, “Our programs are pretty flexible in our ability to dial up if need be.”

Berg is not as hopeful. Although he said he gives the city “a lot of kudos” for taking the substantial steps it did, he maintains that higher wages for workers, more than food pantries or federal programs, are key to combating food insecurity. He said the large amount of food pantries within the city are relatively new, compared to in the 1970s when better conditions for workers meant they were relatively unneeded.

And despite the funding already dedicated to addressing hunger nationwide, statewide, and citywide, Berg said that without another substantial federal stimulus package, New Yorkers — especially those who are low-income — will be in a very tough spot.

“I’ve been in this job 19 years and there’ve been three truly catastrophic events: 9/11, the 2008 Wall Street collapse, and then Hurricane Sandy. In all of those, low-income people suffered the most and it took years and years and years to recover,” Berg said. “Hungry people are the first to get the problem and the last to recover, last to be rehired, last to get wage increases. And I’m worried the current political environment isn’t building the public safety net we need.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

What's Next for the City's Massive 100 Million-Meal Emergency Food Program? Tue, 04 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Two Keys to Solving the City’s School Crisis rate highest record

Students at work (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

The way our children are being educated has changed dramatically by this COVID-19 pandemic. As a working mom, it feels like I’ve been running a marathon and someone keeps moving the finish line. Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have thus far been unable to give working families a clear plan for how our children can safely return to school in the fall. 

The options offered by the de Blasio administration are to either continue with full-time remote learning or a hybrid model with two or three days of learning in the classroom and the others at home. Both options pose major challenges for working parents who can't afford child care, though the mayor also says the city is working on a supplemental child care plan.

All of this lacks essential details just weeks before the start of the school year.

One thing is clear, though: the pandemic has illuminated decades of inaction. New York City’s neglect to adequately fund education and address overcrowded schools is now exacerbating a public health crisis. COVID-19 may not go away for the next several years and we need to start coming up with better and sustainable solutions that will ensure our kids can continue to receive a high-quality education. It's about time we address key issues once and for all.

Short-term, deal with the remote learning model.

If parents are now required to fill the role of teachers when they pay hard-earned tax dollars for education in this city, then at the very least, they should be given a child-care subsidy in the short-term while the city works on more long-term solutions of smaller class sizes. It’s only equitable to reallocate tax dollars to working families, as they will either have to pay for a caregiver or tutor, or take time off of work to ensure their children stay on track. 

Each family with children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade should receive a voucher per child for the year that would cover the costs of child-care, and parents with older children would receive a voucher to hire in-person tutors. 

Long-term, the city must finally deal with overcrowded schools.

Overcrowding is not a new problem, but the neglect of politicians has now become an added layer to the public health crisis that stands in the way of our children receiving quality education, and will further perpetuate the growing inequality in the education system. 

According to estimates from Class Size Matters, we need about 100,000 more seats to fix overcrowding, and Queens is the borough with the most overcrowded schools. In order to truly eradicate poverty and build a more equitable city, we have to do everything we can to ensure high quality education for the 1.1 million kids in our school system.

We need to start by hiring more teachers. 

Class Size Matters proposed allocating $200 million of the $26.9 billion New York City Department of Education budget toward class size reduction by hiring 1,000 new teachers, starting in kindergarten through third grades. Not only is this the right thing to do, we should also explore using parochial schools or other spaces that could be leveraged into public school classrooms if needed, and advocate for the construction of new school campuses.  

According to Class Size Matters, class sizes in New York City schools are 15-30% larger than in other parts of the state, and the number of children in first through third grades in classes of 30 or more students has risen by nearly 3,000% since 2007.

Former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone established an initiative that forced the city to cap all classes at 28 students but the DOE no longer follows those guidelines. Those guidelines must be revisited and enforced through legislation. Class size reduction means quality education for our children, and according to a United Federation of Teachers survey, 99% of New York City teachers believe class size reduction would be an effective reform to improve city schools as over 336,000 students are currently in classes of 30 or more.

As a mother of two I can say one thing is certain: this situation serves as a reminder of just how vitally important it is that parents, particularly mothers, have a place at the table to fight for our kids. New York City families cannot have a repeat of what happened in the spring, or this city will continue to see families exit. It will be interesting to see if the demographics of young families will change, but my hope is that we can create a solution that will help us retain families that build into our city.

The last thing we need is a generation of students falling behind, and the systemic inequalities that will grow as a result.

Felicia Kalan is a candidate for the New York City Council in District 22 in Queens. On Twitter @KalanforQNS.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Two Keys to Solving the City’s School Crisis Thu, 30 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Neither Quality Nor Quantity: Mayor De Blasio’s Unworkable School Reopening Plan schools chancellor public

Mayor de Blasio & Chancellor Carranza (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Many of my colleagues are discussing whether or not it’s safe to go back to school buildings in New York City. Will buildings that were never clean before become clean now? Will buildings that were never properly ventilated suddenly become state of the art? Will children and teenagers observe social distancing in and out of school? I’ll leave all that to your imagination and focus mostly on the pedagogical. 

It’s not hard to explain the best possible way to administer education. I know well, because I’ve been doing it for decades. Face-to-face instruction is optimal. I can give immediate oral and written feedback. My students can work with one another in pairs or other small groupings to reinforce whatever we’re learning. You never know what will happen, every day is different, and it’s the best job there is.

Of course, things are different now. We can’t simply go back this September to where we were last September because we all know the virus is still here and can surge back. We need only look south to Florida, to Texas, and elsewhere to see what will happen if we’re careless. 

This year, we’re looking at what the mayor calls a hybrid school model—partly remote and partly in-person. At first blush, this looks like a reasonable compromise. When you look under the hood, though, there are a lot of major questions. For example, if I go in on Monday and teach 20-50% of my students, what are my other 50-80% going to be doing? Mayor de Blasio has absolutely no answer, expecting individual schools to perform miracles.

I once thought they’d be viewing my live lesson through video feed, but that doesn’t appear viable. Even if it were, how would the students interact? Would the live students see those online? Could they communicate? How would I turn my attention from one group to the other? 

Instead, I’d be meeting with a group of up to 12 students, all masked and socially distanced. This would cramp my style -- and that of most teachers -- quite a bit. I’m accustomed to moving around the room while students are working, watching what they’re doing. I offer tips on work, admonitions to wake up, and whatever falls in between. I’m always watching. I can’t do that from behind the teacher desk.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about where the state wants that teacher desk. On page 29 of recently-released New York State Education Department guidelines, it says:

Turn desks (including teachers) to face in the same direction rather than facing each other to reduce transmission caused by virus-containing droplets (e.g., from talking, coughing, sneezing); 

Evidently, either the students are now looking at the back of my head, or I’m looking at the backs of theirs. I’d probably opt for the latter so as to have a minimum idea of what’s going on. Talking face to face is specifically discouraged here. Add that to the Black Mirror atmosphere of masks and social distancing, the already draconian restrictions on social interaction, and you have a pretty depressing little classroom. I don’t see how this meets anyone’s social and emotional needs, let alone their educational needs. 

Fortunately, in 50-80% of the cases, students will be in online classes and remote learning. While we were thrown into this with neither training nor support in April, we’re better at it now. We could be even better at it if the city were to offer us adequate support and training. 

It’s paramount that students show us their faces during online classes. I don’t know whether or not that cute puppy picture in the digital classroom represents a student paying attention, taking a nap, or walking to the corner to get coffee. I don’t know whether those answers in the chat are being written by my student, by their friend, or by paid tutors who don’t actually care whether or not my student learns anything. 

The city could invest in programs that support online learning. We should find programs that allow us to not only watch the students working in real time, see the work, and also to detect plagiarism. Nothing will be perfect, but that would be a great help. In normal times, I have my students do most of their writing in class because I’m weary of reading identical essays or being presented with pieces by hack writers on the internet. 

The fact is that right now I can do a lot more for my students in a remote class than in the bizarre live setting being proposed by the mayor and the chancellor. I can see them all, they can all see me, and we can all interact online. With training, we can enable groups and pairs and do much better assessments.

Let’s use the buildings sparingly to support students (and teachers) who don’t have a quiet or safe place to work. When in-person counseling or support is absolutely necessary, let’s bring in students in groups so small we don’t have to indulge in ridiculous charades approximating classrooms. 

To do best by our students at this time, we need to cut past appearances, and consider the best education we can give students while still keeping them (and staff) safe. We need to include them all, rather than teaching some and hoping others will figure out what we did on days they were out. Let’s drop the unworkable and preposterous hybrid idea, and give the best remote experience possible to our students for the next few months.

Arthur Goldstein is an ESL teacher and UFT chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School, and a UFT executive committee member. On Twitter @TeacherArthurG.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Neither Quality Nor Quantity: Mayor De Blasio’s Unworkable School Reopening Plan Tue, 28 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000