New daily coronavirus cases remain low in New York City, and schools open in less than three weeks. But with no plan yet in place for transportation, advocates fear more disruptions in home and school for foster children, among the city’s most vulnerable students.
Uncertainty about whether foster parents can count on school buses is further stressing households already struggling to manage the schedules of delicate young lives.
“There are lots of plans, but I don’t know what reality is, and that’s a little bit disconcerting,” said Georgia Boothe, executive vice president at Children’s Aid, one of New York’s largest foster care providers. “We’re all at the mercy of the Department of Education right now, waiting to see what they are going to do.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Richard Carranza, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, announced in early July that the city’s schools would reopen Sept. 10, with parents offered the option of in-person or virtual learning. Tuesday, the mayor delayed full-time teaching until Sept. 21.
As of late last week, however, the Education Department had yet to finalize its school bus contracts. The department continues to negotiate with bus companies, and foster children could see their long-standing school transportation challenges exacerbated.
One foster parent told Boothe’s agency, for example, that her decision whether or not her foster child would attend school in person or online was “100% totally dependent on whether there was transportation provided.”
The transportation uncertainty places a particular strain on foster families. Foster youth have a legal right to remain in their school of origin, no matter where their foster home is. They are often dependent on foster parents getting them to school if schools can’t reroute school buses and the city’s foster care department doesn’t step up. Foster parents, in turn, rely on getting kids off to school so they can go to work or simply regroup.
Yet, the logistics will be more confusing than ever in New York, as school is set to resume on alternating days for some students and not others.
“We’re very concerned about what this will mean for all students eager to return to school even part-time, especially for students in foster care,” said Erika Palmer, supervising attorney for Advocates For Children. “Arranging transportation for such a large number of those students is going to be a huge logistical challenge.”
Students in foster care are more likely than their peers to have special education plans, and some have disabilities, which can require that they receive busing to other boroughs or even outside the city. Complicating factors amid the pandemic is the federal law requiring they receive transportation to their original, pre-foster care school – no matter where they are placed after being removed from home – if that would be in their best interest.
For caregivers with multiple children – often attending multiple schools and now on varied schedules – getting to school is feeling all the more fraught.
The Administration for Children’s Services did not answer questions this week about how many of New York City’s roughly 8,000 foster children have opted for in-person learning this fall or how many typically rely on school buses.
But a spokeswoman said the agency is doing all it can to coordinate closely with the Education Department.
“It is our top priority that children in foster care have their educational needs fulfilled,” Marisa Kaufman stated in an email. She said officials will ensure that, “like all children in New York City returning to school this fall, transportation to and from school is available to students in foster care.”
Until recently, only 11 of the nation’s 50 largest school districts planned to offer any in-person instruction, according to Education Week, and New York City is by far the largest district in the country planning to do so.
A decline in new coronavirus cases is enabling schools to open in New York City. Last week the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases was 148, down from a high of 5,305 in early April.
Still, with increasing numbers of infected children nationwide and much of the decline in cases attributed to the shuttering of public spaces, the return to school poses risks to teachers, staff and families in New York. Negotiations between the mayor and teachers’ unions over “the country’s most closely watched reopening effort” have been contentious, the New York Times reported this week.
Other large school districts around the state, such as Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers, are starting the year fully remote.
Complicating matters further, school transportation has long been a sticking point between school districts and local child welfare agencies that have to negotiate over logistics and cost-sharing.
In March, just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the city, advocates sent a letter to the Administration for Children’s Services and the Education Department, pleading with officials to do more to lower the number of children who have to experience a destabilizing school switch immediately after entering foster care, due to transportation challenges.
Child welfare providers say sometimes the city’s foster youth get left behind because of their unpredictable living situations, and they fear the lack of guidance to date is a warning sign.
“We have received no concrete information,” said Meridith Sopher, vice president of child welfare and juvenile justice for Sheltering Arms, a human services provider.
Other nonprofits that contract with the city to care for foster youth echoed Sopher, saying they’ve received no information about what to tell foster parents, despite repeated requests.
Boothe of Children’s Aid said there could be tragic outcomes in some cases.
“Moving kids out of their school is an option we really don’t want to have to do, and pre-COVID, we rarely ever did, because for kids in foster care, having a stable school environment is one of the only consistent things they have going,” she said. “We don’t want to do anything to change that if we don’t have to.”
Megan Conn contributed to this report.