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NYC Schools Struggle to Regain COVID’s Lost Generation

New York City schools have received more than $7 billion in federal aid to help students recover academically after the pandemic. But 36 percent of students were still “chronically” absent last year. Those in poverty were gone 45 percent of the year.

Children with overstuffed backpacks filter into hallways and homerooms each morning. Cafeterias echo with loud conversations and complaints about school lunches. Yellow buses squeal and hum as they roll down New York City streets.

But a profound change has taken place, defined more by who isn’t in school than who is.

The theory coming out of the devastation of 2020 was simple: As COVID became endemic, problems like missed classroom time, isolation and poor mental health would ebb as children found their way back into the normal rhythms of school. There were programs and support to ease the transition.

But the theory was wrong.

More than 3½ years since the pandemic first hit New York, the lasting and devastating impact of the major disruption to kids’ education is coming into full view. Despite huge investments in education, a staggering number of children remain disconnected from the classroom.

They’re the lost generation of COVID.

“How do you understand science, politics, the economy, if you only have a 10th-grade education?” asked David Bloomfield, a professor of education law and policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “People can’t earn a living now. A $15-an-hour job isn’t going to make the rent and put food on the table.”

The numbers may be improving, but still startling: 36 percent of public school students were “chronically” absent last school year, while many young people were still making up for lost classroom time during the height of the pandemic.

On top of the face-to-face instruction missed while buildings were padlocked, the city’s public school students collectively lost close to 17,500,000 days of school in 2021-22, data show.

The losses were not equal across all city schoolchildren. Students in poverty were chronically absent at a rate of 45 percent that year, compared with 27 percent of those from families above the poverty line.

A recent report from UNESCO shows the unprecedented reliance on technology for learning during the pandemic caused “supercharged” learning inequities worldwide, by setting lower-income students without internet connection at home at a disadvantage.

Billions of Dollars

If the city’s efforts to bring kids back to school were less than hoped for, it wasn’t for lack of spending.

With the help of an infusion of pandemic cash, the city made major investments in new and expanded programs. In total, local public schools received more than $7 billion in federal stimulus to help young people recover from the time away from the classroom.

“The pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on our students,” said public schools spokeswoman Jenna Lyle, “with many of our older students being called to support their families during difficult times and grappling with disruptions to consistent attendance. To counterbalance this, we are not only doubling down on tackling barriers to attendance, but prioritizing programs that reengage our kids and their families in meaningful ways.”

Hundreds of millions went toward summer programs for students to catch up on their schoolwork and rebuild social skills. Three new types of schools cropped up or expanded to meet children’s postpandemic needs: virtual school options, “community schools” that offer more intensive social services and schools that focused on hands-on learning like work experience and projects.

School psychologists and social workers were brought onboard to meet kids’ deteriorating mental health after months of isolation.

“We’re connecting with students with caring adults and school communities, aggressively addressing learning loss, and meeting our students where they are,” Lyle said.

There was a point person at each school and coordinators in all districts to analyze data to identify barriers and make hands-on efforts to reach young people to bring them back to school. Teachers were given scripts and guidance for speaking with students and families about the benefits of regular attendance.

“If it means getting out and actually knocking on doors to get these kids back to the school, we have to do that. We’re prepared to do that,” city Schools Chancellor David Banks told reporters this fall.

Under the Adams administration, schools where kids were particularly struggling with attendance received additional funds through his signature initiative Project Pivot to partner with nonprofits in the neighborhood to reengage students.

But, for all the efforts, experts say it wasn’t enough.

“The city lacked a coherent actionable strategy for return to school,” said Bloomfield, “… and that was a missed opportunity by two administrations.”

“Students out of school were too often out of sight, out of mind.”

Trying to Reconnect

Ashley Lopez, now in her 20s, reenrolled in school and started working toward her diploma, but she hasn’t gotten there yet.

More than a year after she was first sent home for the pandemic, Lopez connected with a school counselor and reenrolled in her alternative high school, which offered paid internships that required regular attendance. She earned $15 an hour at an after-school program near her school.

“I’m not allowed to go to work if I don’t go to school,” she said. “So to provide for myself, it’s a big motivation.”

She had hoped to graduate after a few summer classes, but the reality proved more complicated. Though the course is online, Lopez said, she needed to sign up in-person, and she said she was confused about that process.

Making things more complicated, her high school was relocated crosstown, away from her job. The new building opened while still under renovation, and there were multiple fights at the start of the school year with no cameras in the stairways. She set a new goal to graduate in December, so that she can enroll in cosmetology school.

“I really have no idea where I’m going,” she said.

Life Without High School

Tashyra Hiraldo, 21, had built a new life for herself, but school hasn’t been part of it.

She got an apartment after five months in the shelter system, and paid rent and bills with help from government vouchers and programs. She also started thinking about getting her GED, although it felt impossible while her daughter is still too young for school herself.

Hiraldo’s uncle David helped her get into a nurse training program, which she really liked — but she ultimately dropped out because she needed to care for her daughter. The program felt like a dead end, because she wouldn’t be able to get a job in the field without a GED.

“I couldn’t continue,” she said. “I was passionate at first, but I was just so worried about the chaos, being in the medical field, as if I was really ready for that. And then I needed my GED to keep working at the facility, so it was like, just too much going on.”

Lack of Help

After enduring multiple setbacks, Carlos Carrasquillo, now 17, stepped away from the public school system entirely.

As last school year came to a close, Carlos’ school finally held his last evaluation and scheduled a meeting to discuss his individualized education plan — more than half a year since his mom first informed the school something was awry.

His teachers confirmed what the family had long suspected: The school said it was unable to meet his educational needs. They signed off on the family’s request that Carlos attend a specialized private school.

His mom worried about his mental health and what was lurking in his mind.

Carlos left the public school system this semester for the specialized school, Summit, in Nyack, Rockland County. He takes a bus to and from there every day for up to three hours. He began eating regularly and got a girlfriend, and is loving school. He works on a farm with dogs and goats once a week; soon he will start a part-time job at CVS.

He still struggles sometimes with attendance, but his grades are up and he’s aiming for an advanced Regents diploma that he says would be a “flex.”

According to his mom, a private psychologist told her such a drastic measure was unlikely to have been necessary had Carlos received the support he needed sooner.

Struggling, But Hopeful

Ariel De La Cruz, now 17, is optimistic about his future, but facing serious challenges.

He came back to the Bronx after a stint living in upstate New York and enrolled in a new high school, where he began working to make up for lost time. He started to feel a bit more like his pre-COVID self now, too.

His grades continued to fluctuate, but he was committed to graduating, enrolling in summer school to catch up on credits.

He also rejoined a basketball team — a huge passion for him.

“This year was a complicated year, but I think next year will definitely be smoother,” he said.

An Uncertain Future

The clock is ticking on recovery efforts to help the city’s lost schoolkids.

The city is losing federal stimulus cash that was supposed to jump-start that effort, cutting off options going forward to invest in programs and additional staff. Summer school, funded with the temporary dollars, is being scaled back for middle school kids as soon as this summer. Schools offering social services onsite were hit under recent cuts by the mayor.

“The kids that were in high school during this, we don’t have the time to get organized,” said Robert Balfanz, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University. “It’ll be felt in their lives and the lives of the people they’re connected to for quite a while.

“To the extent there’s multiple of these kids — that’ll be felt by a whole society,” he said.

In New York, where so many children grow up in poverty, finishing high school can make a huge difference. The statistics are clear: A diploma often means the difference between a stable, independent life and one marked by housing insecurity, lower-wage jobs or trouble with the law.

A protester holds a “Fund Our Schools” sign in this file photo. (Shutterstock)The pandemic has contributed to a generation consigned to struggle economically and socially for years to come, and with potentially devastating consequences for our city and society.

“You can’t teach the kids, you can’t prepare kids for careers, if they’re not coming to school,” said Bloomfield, the CUNY professor.

“It makes me cry,” he said, solemnly.

“It’s disastrous for the economy and the culture of the city.”

©2023 New York Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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