New York Foster Parents Face a ‘Back to School’ Like No Other

foster parents

Last fall, Minda Briaddy snapped a photo of her husband, John, walking their  7- and 12-year-old daughters, who they plan to adopt from foster care, to school near Lake Placid. (Photo courtesy of Minda Briaddy)

First grade ended on a low note in June for Minda Briaddy’s 7-year-old daughter, who joined the family from foster care at age 4 and is now being adopted. After her in-person classes and special education services ended abruptly due to the coronavirus pandemic, her elementary school in New York’s Adirondack Mountains sent home three bulging envelopes stuffed with worksheets for her to complete at home on her own.

“It was a fight every day – it took a two-hour temper tantrum just to get her to do one worksheet,” said Briaddy, who has a master’s degree in special education. “She rejected me being the teacher.”

Fearing her daughter would lose much of the year’s learning without access to her special needs services, Briaddy begged the teacher to do one-on-one Zoom calls with her daughter. 

Slowed academic growth wasn’t the only thing that worried Briaddy and her husband, John: They also worried that their daughter was missing out on the social development that comes from playing with other kids of her age – even if she did have an older brother and sister at home. Several health conditions meant the family had to take quarantine seriously, but by early July, Briaddy decided it would be safe to do a “double bubble” play-date with another family that had been isolating. 

“The kids were so unbelievably happy, they went right back into it,” Briaddy said. “There’s a lot they’ve been missing out on – young kids need play to learn.”

This fall, she is eager to find a way for her daughter to safely resume in-person classes and face-to-face therapy sessions. A return to in-person learning and activities may be possible for much of New York State, which has so far managed to suppress community transmission of the coronavirus. But even in these relatively fortunate areas, there is still so much for parents to worry about

‘Already traumatized’ – and then a pandemic

Foster and adoptive parents like Briaddy are struggling to reassure their kids and create a sense of normalcy in a frightening and unprecedented time. But they are doing so knowing the children they are caring for have already experienced significant disruption and loss.

Professionals who work with foster children say they see the stress of isolation and restriction manifest in a variety of ways, from anxiety to depression to rebelliousness.

“We’re seeing more behavior issues because they’re not able to interact with their peers. Their apartments become their entire world, their whole life happens in a bubble,” said Bernice Christopher, a longtime supervisor at the New York City foster agency Forestdale. “Kids in foster care are at a particular disadvantage because they’re already traumatized, and now they’re having additional lags in development and rules about what they shouldn’t do.”

To help foster parents cope with children who have struggled during the pandemic, the agency’s behavioral specialists have used a method they’ve trained parents on for nearly a decade. They start by identifying the one behavior that is most disruptive, then make a plan to redirect it using rewards and targeted therapy.

foster parents

Minda and John Briaddy’s three youngest children, all of whom they plan to adopt from foster care, watched fireworks along with one of the family’s older daughters. (Photo courtesy of Minda Briaddy)

Christopher also encourages parents to have “low key” conversations with the children in their care and to choose their language carefully.

“We tell them to show their concern, to say, ‘When you do these things, I worry a lot,’ and to ask how they can help,” Christopher said.

The Briaddys learned that establishing routines while at home is key to helping their daughter.

“Kids with trauma need to know exactly what’s happening and when,” John Briaddy said. “If their day is out of the ordinary, chances are you’re going to pay.”

Health concerns

Despite worries about lost academic and social growth, protecting children’s health and safety remains the top priority of foster and adoptive parents and kinship caregivers, agency directors say.

“Whether schools are open, closed or remote, they’ll cope with it – they just don’t want the kids going to school if it means they might get sick and bring it home to families,” said Bill Weisberg, Forestdale’s CEO. Many caregivers are older or have family members with health conditions, he said, so “the fear of school being a breeding ground for the virus seems to be the top concern.”

That fear is especially acute in hard-hit New York City, where the virus spread undetected for weeks before schools and businesses closed down in March. This fall, the city’s public schools are planning to divide students into cohorts that attend separate in-person classes two or three days each week. All students and teachers will wear masks throughout the day, classes will be capped at 12 people, and kids will likely eat lunch in their classrooms.

Parents and teachers face a storm of difficult questions. What about children who can’t wear a mask due to asthma or autism? Who will look after children on remote learning days? And how will teachers keep kids from interacting at an unsafe distance?

Bringing younger children together just to keep them apart won’t be easy, said Forestdale’s Christopher, a former kindergarten teacher.

“There’s the hope for social distancing, but in all honesty, I don’t see how we could do it, especially for kids ages 5 to 11,” she said. “Kids want to be talking to each other, showing each other stuff – it’s part of the learning process. They don’t understand if you tell them they can’t go hug their friend.”

The danger of COVID-19 is particularly potent for parents who know someone who’s been affected. In Buffalo, Elvira Northington, who has three adopted teens and a granddaughter in kindergarten, watched anxiously as her sister suffered through the brutal illness caused by the coronavirus earlier this year.

“I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” she said. “We spent all these months at home to make sure everyone was safe and healthy, and now I don’t want to take a chance.”

school

During the pandemic, Elvira Northington supervised online learning for her grandson, who stayed with her while his mother had to work, and granddaughter, who lives with her. Her three adopted teens were also doing virtual classes, and at first, all the kids had to share two computers. (Photos courtesy of Elvira Northington)

Striking a balance

Still, many foster parents and providers recognize that isolating kids for months to years could significantly harm their development. For many, particularly those in suburban and rural areas that have seen lower rates of infection, time is too precious to let slip by.

Northern Rivers, a foster agency that also runs two schools in Albany and Schenectady, resumed classes in July at about three-quarters capacity with added safety measures, like requiring masks and taking childrens’ temperatures before they enter the school.

“I think we have to do it. It’s a social justice issue,” said CEO Bill Gettman. “They need socialization with their peers, they need to have a positive, face-to-face relationship with the teacher, they need to see the clinician face-to-face.”

Outside Albany, Chris Mancuso and his wife had been hoping to enroll their energetic 2-year-old foster son in preschool this fall, but if programs aren’t open or have limited capacity, they may have to wait until January or later. With local playgrounds closed for months, the active toddler is “showing signs of frustration.”

The boy’s 1-year-old little brother has been much easier to keep entertained indoors, but Mancuso has noticed the older child is now confused on the rare occasions he sees anyone outside of the immediate family: “He’s been so isolated that now he looks at strangers like, ‘Who are you?’”

Room for improvement

One thing many foster parents agree on is that the haphazard remote learning plans schools rushed out in the spring left plenty to be desired. 

“Some schools just gave assignments for kids to hand in, which I don’t think is good for anybody,” said Amy Drayer, director of foster, kinship and parent group services at the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York. “There’s no socialization involved in that model, no checking on well-being.”

The overnight experiment with distance learning underscored the importance of ensuring all students have the necessary technology and that parents are equipped to help. Last spring, Forestdale’s behavioral specialist team – which typically provides counseling and coaching – instead spent weeks helping parents get devices and learn how to use them.

In Buffalo, Elvira Northington’s four children initially had to share two laptops, until she was able to get two more donated by the adoptive and foster family coalition. Figuring out how to submit the children’s assignments online also took several attempts.

back to school new york foster family

To celebrate an uncle’s birthday while keeping distance, Elvira Northington’s teen daughter and granddaughters made festive signs. (Photos courtesy of Elvira Northington)

Through all of the challenges, she said her strong connections to other foster parents were a saving grace. Her local foster parent support group stays in close touch through a group text message where members can share concerns and get quick answers. A few times, she has done backyard visits with fellow foster parents.

But many others feel they need better support from the system itself, not just other parents. Smaller upstate communities lack services for foster parents, according to Minda Briaddy.

“There’s immense pressure on foster parents,” Briaddy said. “They’re alone with no help, the kids have no help, and everybody is at the end of their rope.”

Into the unknown

Ultimately, foster parents will have to make a personal decision about the safest and best way for children to learn and play this fall – taking into account each child’s unique needs, family health concerns, access to alternate childcare, and, perhaps above all, the pace at which the virus is spreading in each community. Despite the challenges, agency leaders said they’re confident parents will find a way to make the best of an impossible situation.

“When it comes down to it, parents do what they have to do,” Drayer said, “Especially in a time of crisis, they rely on each other and help each other.”

Megan Conn can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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