This post is by the leaders of the NYCLU's Teen Activist Project
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio closed the city’s public schools on March 16. They won’t open again until April 20 at the earliest, as the number of people with COVID-19 in the city and across the country continues to climb.
The Mayor’s reluctance to close the schools was driven by the fact that many of the city’s 1.1 million students rely on them for essential things like meals, health care, and access to the internet.
As part of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Teen Activist Project, we acknowledge the steps that the city’s education leaders have taken during this unprecedented crisis to ensure that students have access to necessary services, such as expanding free childcare to cover essential workers, distributing tens of thousands of devices to students who need them, and providing three free meals each day to students at more than 400 sites across the city.
Now that students are closing out our second week of remote learning and are figuring out how to live with this new reality, we have seven concerns and suggestions for the Mayor and city agencies.
1. Youth Task Force
The city should convene a youth task force and TAP should participate. It is essential for policymakers to have input from students to best account for our needs, and we’re ready to contribute to making the city as strong as it can be.
2. The Role of NYPD and Social Distancing
New York City police have started to enforce social distancing rules as officials emphasize the importance of this practice to limit the spread of COVID-19. The NYPD has a history of discriminatory, harmful, and unfair contact with young people, especially Black youth, and especially in schools. The city has not done enough to limit NYPD contact with young people, and we are especially at risk during this vulnerable time.
We urge the NYPD to not conduct any arrests of young people for violating social distance guidelines, or for other noncriminal and minor offenses. Enforcement actions should not be the goal—the NYPD can simply tell people to go home, and minimize the risk to everyone. We do not want to be surveilled and disciplined in the streets as we go out to get some fresh air during this chaotic time.
3. Remote Learning
We must grapple with the fact that many students do not have access to remote learning. While we understand that the Department of Education is providing technology to students who are in most need, we need to ensure that families can operate these devices to effectively participate in remote learning.
We are concerned about our homeless classmates, including those who live in shelters. Special consideration should be given to this population to be sure they are getting the support they need to be safe and to participate in remote learning.
There needs to be flexibility around students’ participation. Even though we are children, the pandemic has forced many of us to take care of the house, our elders, our siblings, and others. It is not always possible to participate in live instruction, and being able to access materials and watch lectures on our own time would help. Additionally, as teachers begin to instruct virtually, we are asking that there is flexibility in assessing us and in the amount of coursework given, due to this unusual circumstance.
4. Health Services
With this growing pandemic, thousands of children will no longer have access to speak with school counselors. School counselors, psychologists, social workers, and nurses provide essential health and mental health services. We would like the DOE to implement more programs like the COVID-19 Emotional Support Hotline, so that students can confidentially access their counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses.
The school closures will affect student safety in many ways. Homeless students, in particular, are drastically affected. The city should make as many resources available to this population –like access to areas for hand washing – and make sure all young people are receiving adequate care.
School closures also mean that students who are living with potentially abusive family members are now more at risk during this pandemic. The city should call an emergency action for neighbors and relatives who witness such events to be mandated reporters while these students are centered at home.
6. Support for Students with Disabilities
About 20 percent of city public school students are students with disabilities. These students are legally entitled to support during this crisis and should be getting the same, if not more, hands-on support from their teachers to ensure their needs are being met. We recommend the DOE set up extra online resources specifically for students with disabilities and their parents.
7. Support for Immigrant Students
English-language learners (ELL) and immigrant students heavily rely on everyday interactions with fellow students and their teachers in order to perfect the skills they need to be fluent in the English language. Through virtual learning, it will be difficult for these students to receive the proper assistance they need from teachers, especially if they come from homes where no one speaks English.
To help with this issue, we urge the city to ensure that all the resources students need are provided in various languages that represent the large ELL population in city schools.
Another subset of these students is undocumented immigrants. Undocumented students and families are the most vulnerable during this time. If they are at risk of exposure, they fear seeking medical treatment due to their immigration status. The city should continue to provide safe and confidential treatment to undocumented immigrants during this time, and communicate to them that they will be protected.
Overall, the city must ensure that all students receive fair and effective education that mirrors the quality of learning that they would receive in a classroom. And we must also recognize that many students count on schools for more than just an education, and that young people’s basic needs must still be met during the pandemic.
If you're a student, parent, teacher, or school staff member in New York, we want to hear from you about how coronavirus is impacting education in our state.