A couple months into the pandemic, I was commiserating on the sidewalk with a neighbor shortly after Mr. Gibbs, who lived at the end of our block, died of COVID-19. This was in those scary early weeks, when the streets were nearly empty, ambulance sirens wailed all day and night, and nobody knew what to expect.
It’s going to be bad even when the pandemic’s over, said my wise and worried neighbor: Think about the number of grandmothers who were heads of households in Black and Latino communities, the glue holding families together. If COVID takes those matriarchs out, he predicted, hundreds of kids — possibly thousands — would, in effect, be orphaned.
We groaned, shook our heads, bumped fists, and moved on.
Two years later, this dread scenario has come to pass.
“Across the city, around 8,600 children have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID — a population that would entirely fill 15 average-sized New York City public schools,” writes Fazil Khan, for part of a collaborative reporting project by The City and Columbia Journalism School. “This staggering yet largely hidden toll of the pandemic affects more than 1 in every 200 children in New York City, nearly double the rate across the country.”
“Keeping Track of New York City’s Children,” a new report by the Citizens Committee for Children of New York, calculates that 4,730 New York City kids under 18 lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19 from March 2020 through December 2021.
“When you look at the data cumulatively, we see loss of life, loss of income, disruption in early education, skyrocketing behavioral health needs all clustering in the same communities,” says Jennifer March, executive director of CCC. “In the life of children, youth, and young adults, this pandemic has really pulled the rug out from underneath them.”
I suspect that when the full story is told, we’ll find that much of the criminal violence and disorder currently plaguing the city will be traced back to the thousands of households disbanded and disrupted by COVID. Young people — boys in particular — often respond to family trauma by recreating their own street families, known to the rest of us as gangs.
To make matters worse, the public institutions we count on to help raise New York’s kids — our school system and after-school programs, and the Family Court — have all shrunk or slowed down during the pandemic.
Thanks to a big push by the de Blasio administration to create pre-K and 3K classroom seats, more than 150,000 infants and toddlers in the city are eligible for publicly subsidized early education — but only about 23,000 are enrolled, according to the CCC report.
“At the height of the pandemic, child-care programs were shuttered, right? Because — as were schools — there was a lot of concern about contagion. As they’ve reopened, it’s been really difficult to reconnect to care for a variety of reasons,” says March. “They’re paid based on seats being filled, and if you’re closed for months at a time, you have greater instability and it’s more difficult to get up and running again.”
For older kids, the administration of Mayor Eric Adams is rolling out a special program to help kids recover from the pandemic.
“Our Summer Rising Program is going to engage over 110,000 students who will have an opportunity to not only catch up academically, but also to be engaged in a lot of fun activities,” Schools Chancellor David Banks told me. “We’ve got dozens of community-based organizations that are working with us to make sure that the second part of the day is going to be a lot of fun. They’ll get out. They’ll go around the parks and museums. And they’ll just do a lot of stuff that makes school fun.”
Another 100,000 high-schoolers are scheduled to get city-arranged summer jobs at corporations around town, says Banks.
Other institutions have a longer way to go. A report by the New York City Bar Association and the Fund for Modern Courts found that the already overburdened Family Court — which handles 200,000 or so cases every year that include child abuse, child support, orders of protection, visitation rights, custody disputes, juvenile delinquency, domestic violence, and foster care — racked up a huge backlog during the pandemic.
In some cases, women and children were forced to remain in abusive households for weeks longer than was safe, unable to get orders of protection or financial support that would enable them to move out.
“The vast majority of litigants — especially unrepresented litigants who make up 80 percent or more of the court population — had virtually no access to the Family Court” during the pandemic, the study found, a situation exacerbated by a lack of technology to conduct remote proceedings.
Our courts, schools, and after-school programs can plug some of the gaps, but all of them need as much time, attention, and money as we can spare. Too many kids have lost parents or grandparents, and been set adrift in a brusque, busy city. If New York doesn’t make things right for our kids, today’s neglect will come back to haunt us.