No Schools, No Pools: Foster Families Wrestle With Summer Pandemic Void

New York City summer
Youth participating in one of New York City’s summer enrichment programs, open to all students. Credit: Center for Family Life

Shafaath Khan had big plans for the summer of 2020.

The New York City 10th grader was going to study for exams so he could stay on track to graduate from high school. He’d also been offered a paid gig monitoring bottlenose dolphins offshore from his coastal Queens foster home. 

Above all, Khan who was born in America but spent most of his life in Bangladesh, where he overcame homelessness at a tender age was excited to see his favorite artist this summer. The Canadian pop superstar The Weeknd was set to perform at Brooklyn’s Waypoint in June.

I’ve memorized all his lyrics,” he said during a phone conversation. “I walk around singing ‘Starboy’ to myself.” 

But Khan’s exam-taking, college-visiting, income-earning and concert-going plans have all been canceled due to the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. 

Last month, New York City officials announced that due to the health risks and a bludgeoned local economy, there would be no public funds for employment and enrichment programs serving an estimated 175,000 youth, including Khan, for savings of around $179 million

So far, even with hospitalizations and deaths from coronavirus in a gradual decline – and a vigorous public advocacy campaign by teens and pushback from city and state lawmakers – the planned cuts remain in place.  

That has left folks like Antoinette Sumter Cotman in limbo, waiting for guidance from city officials. The Queens foster mother of more than 35 years leads a family advocacy group out of one of the city’s 91 after-school Beacon program centers. Many of her 30-some members were planning to keep kids participating in Beacon programs through summer, until the mayor’s closure announcement last month.

She says she and her fellow foster parents don’t know whether to push for the city to find alternative in-person programming, due to the health risks. 

“It’s not just about getting the kids out of your hair,” said Sumter Cotman. Her foster daughter, who is a junior in high school, is preparing for a summer in the backyard, reading Ellen Hopkins novels, and visiting the online shopping emporium AliExpress. “It’s important to offer kids in your care a variety of experiences that they may not have gotten before entering foster care – I’m talking to my teenager about ergonomics every day because she’s sitting at a computer all day and her back hurts.”

New York City summer
Youth participating in one of New York City’s summer enrichment programs, open to all students. Credit: Center for Family Life

Khan, who is adept at handling adversity and resolute about going to college, plans to shift gears and spend the summer mastering an online version of the board game Monopoly. It’s a far cry from the summer immersion program at Columbia University he had been planning to attend before the pandemic – what would have been an astounding leap for a young person who only began attending school and learned to write English over the past two years.

“It would be really very good if the city helped us,” he said. “But, there are so many of us, so I don’t expect them to. The reality is they probably can’t.”

The Summer Youth Employment Program, through which Khan earned around $2,400 last year repairing computer motherboards, in prior years has compensated as many as 75,000 teens each summer. The Comprehensive After School System of New York City, known as COMPASS, and related after school programs like Beacon and Cornerstone, all usually continue to offer tutoring, recreation and leadership opportunities for roughly 100,000 students every day from sunup through evening during the summer. 

The programs are open to any city youth, but the June 30 closure of these programs will present unique challenges especially to the city’s foster families, families at risk of having their children placed in foster care, and youth with a history in the juvenile justice system. 

An analysis released this month by the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York City revealed that the city’s highest-risk neighborhoods, including Khan’s Far Rockaway, will be most affected by the sweeping summer closures. The 1,165 sites for school-related programs are concentrated in neighborhoods like East Harlem in Manhattan, or Brownsville in Brooklyn. Both communities have dozens of sites that will close, compared to less than a dozen for other, wealthier neighborhoods, according to the committee’s report.

Advocates point out the city-funded Summer Youth Employment Program sends students to offices, parks and other professional worksites citywide, while the after school programs are held in school buildings and community centers – spaces open to any youth, without the stigma of child welfare-specific sites exclusively for troubled families.

Julie Brockway, co-director of the nonprofit Center for Family Life in Brooklyn, said almost all of the hundreds of families her agency works with in child welfare-specific prevention programs, funded by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, also participate in one of their school-based summer programs like Beacon and COMPASS, funded by the Department of Youth and Community Development. 

“What’s great about these programs is, there’s no identification of kids as having a [child welfare] case, since these programs exist to support families with or without cases,” Brockway said. “Every young person deserves high quality arts and sports and social interaction.” 

Of all the budget fights she’s seen in nearly four decades with the center, Brockway said she’s never seen one this serious, on this scale. 

“It’s profound,” she said of the summer cancelation of school-related enrichment programs, which will require the center to furlough 150 staff when school ends June 30. “These are the places where schools are able to offer doses of not just reading and writing but also arts and sports and leadership development, building on inherent strengths in vulnerable populations and helping them build resilience.”

Regina Mitchell, a Brooklyn foster parent, described the local Cornerstone program she leads in the Wyckoff Gardens public housing complex as a haven for all local parents, including those who fear losing their kids.

New York City
Youth participating in one of New York City’s Cornerstone programs–a year-round after-school and summer enrichment service housed in public housing complexes and open to all, including foster youth who might not have other options in the summer. Credit: Regina Mitchell

“Many of the children we serve are one day, one hour, one minute from being put in foster care,” said Mitchell, who is the on-site director for the program, which provides tutoring, meals, sports equipment, field trips and other enrichment activities to around 250 K-12 students seven days a week in the summer. “They have similar issues, parents or support systems that can crack during this pandemic summer.” 

Khan’s story underscores what’s being lost for kids with minimal resources.

The young man ended up in foster care after arriving in New York nearly two years ago from Bangladesh. He was raised there after being born in the United States, but his mother always wanted him to return stateside to build a life as an adult. After they escaped homelessness a few years ago in the South Asian nation’s capital city of Dhaka, Khan resolved to make the most of his next opportunity in the United States.

He landed at John F. Kennedy Airport alone at age 16, found an information kiosk near a Dunkin’ Donuts and reported that he knew no one in the country. The city’s Administration for Children Services was called, and eventually delivered him to his Far Rockaways foster home. There he began attending school, at first nearly flunking all his classes because it took him so long to write in English.  

But he spent the year transcribing every book he could find. And now, he’s near the top of his class and has been accepted to the competitive Columbia program, which will be held virtually this summer.  

As a foster youth,  Khan doesn’t have resources of his own, so he counts on the city-funded employment program to cover additional living expenses over the summer.

That program, too, is hurting amid the coronavirus epidemic wreckage. The Rise Center where Khan planned to work is one of the largest summer employment providers for youth on the Rockaway peninsula. The science-learning organization’s founder said she should be able to pay Khan with private funding, but she is scrambling to replace roughly $60,000 in lost city dollars to pay this summer’s 40-some teen participants. 

Missing the opportunity at Columbia because of insufficient funds is especially frustrating to Khan, who is resourceful but has only one relative in the country, a 21-year-old brother who lives a day trip away. He once saw a video on YouTube that mentioned high rates of homelessness for former foster youth, and that’s partly what encouraged him to pursue the Columbia program. 

“That really shocked me. When I think about my past life, I’m like no, that’s not the life I want to live,” he said. Now that I have clean water, I want to drink it.”

Michael Fitzgerald can be reached at mfitzgerald@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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Michael Fitzgerald, New York Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Michael Fitzgerald, New York Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 104 Articles
New York Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at mfitzgerald@chronicleofsocialchange.org or follow on Twitter at @mchlftzgrld.