During COVID, they believed home was safer than school. Now some NYC parents are accused of neglect.

Christina Veiga and Amy Zimmer
Chalkbeat New York

NEW YORK – There was no warning, just a knock on the door of Melissa Keaton’s apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn. 

She opened it to find a caseworker with the Administration for Children’s Services, or ACS, the New York City agency tasked with investigating suspected child neglect and abuse. 

Still shaken by the death of her father from COVID-19, Keaton hadn’t sent her 9-year-old daughter to school since classes started mid-September. It was now the end of October, and the caseworker explained to Keaton, a former PTA president at her daughter’s school, that someone had reported the family for educational neglect.

When New York City opened its schools this fall for in-person learning, with no option for virtual instruction, families across the five boroughs opted to keep their children home. They worried about the health of their children and vulnerable loved ones and remained unconvinced it was safe to return to full buildings.

The city’s Department of Education promised at the beginning of the school year to be patient with families who remained scared of returning to in-person learning in what was once the U.S. epicenter of the health crisis.

“The only time ACS will intervene is if there is a clear intent to keep a child from being educated, period,” schools Chancellor Meisha Porter said at a news conference shortly before the new school year began. “We want to work with our families because we recognize what families have been through.”

Now, more than two months into the school year, some parents say they have been reported for neglect. The effect of child welfare investigations on already traumatized families can be severe: Charges may stay on records for decades, job prospects can be affected and, most alarmingly, parents could be separated from children.

Viviana Echavarria, 38, her 6-month old baby, and her son Achilles Fernandez, 11, pose for a portrait outside their home in the North Riverdale section of the Bronx on Wednesday, Nov. 17. Viviana and her husband were among the parents of New York City school students who didn't feel it was safe for their children to return to in-person learning during the ongoing public health crisis. Viviana says they plan to send her children back to school now that Achilles has had his first COVID-19 shot.

Education department staff made 207 reports of educational neglect through Oct. 31, according to ACS data. The numbers tripled in the last two weeks of October compared with the total reported during the first month of school. 

Still, the overall number of reports dropped from last year, when there were 346 cases in the same time period. But some parents and advocates say this year’s numbers are cause for concern, because some of the parents getting wrapped up in the child welfare system are trying to educate their children as they hold out for a remote option.

The pandemic changed American education overnight:Some changes are here to stay.

Options for wary families, who are disproportionately families of color, are limited. Parents can apply for medically necessary instruction, which offers few teaching hours at home or virtually – but only for children who meet certain medical conditions. They can home-school, but that removes the student from their public school and puts the onus on families to educate their children at home, without help. In New York, home-schooling also involves completing and filing a plan and quarterly reports. 

Experts have stressed that children learn best in school. The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned about the dire consequences of keeping students home. 

“Remote learning – which exacerbated existing educational inequities – was detrimental to the educational attainment of students of all ages and worsened the growing mental health crisis among children and adolescents,” the academy wrote. 

City leaders have worked to reassure families that steps are being taken to make buildings safe. Staff must be vaccinated, masks are required for everyone, and officials said they’ve upgraded ventilation across the city’s 1,600 schools. Weekly on-campus coronavirus testing for unvaccinated students has revealed a positivity rate of .39% over a seven-day average, according to city data through Nov. 17. 

“Our priority is the safety of our students, and the first two months of this school year showed that our schools are the safest place for them to be during this pandemic,” said education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer. 

For Keaton, whose father died alone at a hospital soon after developing a cough in April 2020, that isn’t enough. After attending virtual town halls and talking to school and district leaders, she remained unconvinced it was safe to send her daughter back to a school building.

“Families who are grieving and traumatized should not have to go through this,” she said.

How does COVID-19 affect me? Don’t miss an update with the Coronavirus Watch newsletter.

‘Caught in the crosshairs’

It’s unclear how many families are refusing to send their children to school buildings this year. But attendance has lagged in some places, and last month the chancellor recorded a round of robocalls to families urging them to send their children to class.

Tajh Sutton is a mom in Brooklyn who, through the advocacy group PRESS, Parents for Responsive Equitable Safe Schools, has been providing resources and support to families boycotting classrooms because of health concerns. 

Did America’s schools open safely? We crunched the latest data on COVID-19 and kids.

The group has been advocating for a remote option as well as legislation that would require parents to be informed of their rights if they’re ever reported to ACS. Group members also have asked for an attendance code to track families who are staying home because of safety concerns. 

After receiving roughly 20 calls from parents who recently received visits from ACS caseworkers, PRESS members created toolkits to help families understand their rights when it comes to child welfare and is partnering with the advocacy group JMacForFamilies and others on a workshop on the topic Nov. 26.

The education department last week sent new guidance to principals with specific suggestions for how to engage with families who aren’t sending their children to school because of health concerns. 

The guidance calls for offering families a virtual tour of the school to see the safety measures in place, making adjustments to respond to parents’ concerns and offering application information for the city’s medically necessary instruction program. It also notes that schools should not report families for educational neglect if there is a pending application for medically necessary instruction or home-schooling. 

“A report of suspected educational neglect is not a remedy for excessive absences, and is an option of last resort,” the guidance says. 

Styer, the education department spokesman, said that educators “exhaust all options to support families in making sure every student attends school safely every day” but also that “our staff take their responsibility as mandated reporters for child welfare very seriously.”

“One of the striking things to me about placing teachers in the role of mandated reporters is just the extreme damage and lack of trust that creates in the relationship between parents and teachers,” said Anna Arons of the New York University School of Law, who has studied the city’s child welfare agency.

Despite the detailed guidance, many schools appear to be responding in their own ways, according to Amy Leipziger, a senior staff attorney who deals with education issues for Queens Legal Services. The move to call ACS on families, who are “trying to do the best they can,” ends up feeling very “retaliatory” by their schools, she said.

“Now you’ve got parents – and more importantly, you’ve got kids – getting caught in the crosshairs,” she said.

A spokesperson for ACS, Nicholas Aguilar, said the agency’s top priority is the safety and well-being of the city’s children. “Our work is focused on ensuring families have the services and supports that they need for their children to thrive, including educational services,” he said.

Educators are considered “mandated reporters,” which means they’re obligated to report suspected abuse or neglect. Before COVID-19, educators made about a quarter of ACS reports, Arons said. 

Research nationwide shows reports from educators are the least likely to be substantiated, she said.

“One of the striking things to me about placing teachers in the role of mandated reporters is just the extreme damage and lack of trust that creates in the relationship between parents and teachers,” she said.

In terms of who is being reported, Black and Latino children tend to be overrepresented. Though about 60% of the city’s children are Black and Latino, they are 90% of those involved in investigations or placed in foster care, Arons said. 

COVID equity:Will children of color get vaccinated at the rates of other kids?

In response to the harshness of how long ACS charges stay on one’s record, a new state rule will take effect in January reducing the number of years to eight. Until then, any ACS charges could remain on someone’s record until the child turns 28.

‘Concerned for our children’s safety’

After spending last year fully remote, Viviana Echavarria’s two teenagers were excited to return to Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy and even went back-to-school shopping. 

But then the Bronx mom and her husband decided to keep their two high schoolers home until their 11-year-old could get vaccinated. 

Still, Echavarria was stunned when her husband called late last month while she was at work, as a director of operations for a nursing home, letting her know that an ACS caseworker was at their door. He hasn’t returned to work yet to stay home with their three school-age children and 6-month-old baby. 

Viviana Echavarria, 38, speaks with her kids about their upcoming return to in-person classes on Nov. 17. Viviana and her husband were among the parents of New York City school students who didn't feel it was safe for their children to return to in-person learning during the ongoing public health crisis. Viviana says they plan to send her children back to school now that her son Achilles, 11, has received his first COVID-19 shot.

The caseworker was investigating allegations of educational neglect and checked the children for bruises on their bodies. Because the family includes an infant, the caseworker said she would be visiting every week, Echavarria said.

Before the school year started, Echavarria had contacted the school to let administrators know her children would be home and asked for support. The principal told her the only option was to sign up to home-school her children. The principal, in an email Sept. 8, wrote that the education department was not providing curriculum, materials or support.

The full-time working mom of four didn’t feel equipped to home-school and asked the city’s home-school office for help, but she got no response. Though she has been taking her children to the library on occasion, they’ve had no formal schooling yet this year. 

“They’re putting you in a position where you have to choose between your kids’ health and their education,” Echavarria said. “If they think they’re helping the children, they’re making it worse. Now they’re adding fear.”

Her two older children’s geometry teachers had reached out to find out why they were missing class and ended up giving them access to assignments in Google classroom. But when the children asked the other teachers if they could do the same, the principal clamped down, Echavarria said.

In an email Sept. 24, the principal said: “The children must come to school. We have programs and are expecting them.” 

The principal declined to comment, referring questions to the education department, which didn’t address specific cases.

After getting her 11-year-old son vaccinated this week, Echavarria now plans to send all three children back to school on Thursday, hoping that will put an end to the ACS investigation. The agency, however, would not tell her whether that would close the case, she said.

“We feel like we can’t wait for the second dose. We feel like we don’t have a choice,” she said. “It still leaves us: Where do we go from here? We’re sending them to school, but we’re still being investigated.”

Viviana Echavarria, 38, works from her home in the North Riverdale section of the Bronx on Nov. 17.

Home-schooling wasn’t an option for Keaton either. She felt she could manage online learning after having done so for more than a year. She wasn’t prepared, however, to be her daughter’s teacher. Like Echavarria, Keaton also sent emails to school leaders asking them to provide virtual work for her daughter to complete. 

“I was told no, there wasn’t any work. That was only for students who are quarantining, and there is no remote option,” she said. 

With the help of the nonprofit organization Brooklyn Defenders, Keaton is now navigating the application for medically necessary home-based instruction while the ACS case looms. She has found support through a local group called Parents Supporting Parents NY. She has worried about whether the investigation will affect her ability to work in schools, as she has in the past, and wondered how long it would take to get her daughter back if they were ever separated. 

“It’s rough to fathom the thought that I could end up in front of a judge who could remove my child because I want to maintain her safety and our health,” Keaton said. “I can provide a safe environment for her at home. There is no exposure.”

‘It’s policing’

Another member of PRESS, Paullette Healy has been keeping both of her children home because of health concerns while providing resources and support to families who are also boycotting schools because of health concerns. Healy knew that getting a visit from ACS was a real threat – she had been working on the toolkits for parents in that situation. 

Still, the Brooklyn mom was shocked when she received a knock on her door from an ACS caseworker while in the middle of an online training session last week for her role on her local Community Education Council, which is essentially a school board for her district.

She was shaken by the visit, especially since both of her children’s schools unofficially supported her choice by allowing them access to work on Google classroom.

Healy refused to let the caseworker inside, nor did she provide the requested pictures of her children’s asthma medications, her husband’s medications and their smoke alarms.  

Healy had applied on Sept. 1 for medically necessary instruction for her children, citing asthma and anxiety as reasons to keep them home. She never heard back, and just last week learned from one of her children’s schools that school officials could not find her application. 

“They’re putting you in a position where you have to choose between your kids’ health and their education,” Echavarria said. “If they think they’re helping the children, they’re making it worse. Now they’re adding fear.”

Some parents and legal advocates told Chalkbeat that applications for medically necessary instruction are taking about four weeks to process. Roughly 500 children are enrolled in medically necessary instruction, with about 750 having submitted applications this year so far, according to education department data as of Nov. 9.

Healy worries she’ll likely have to spend the next year working to get the ACS investigation off her record for background checks.

Even though Healy understands how to navigate the system, the visit has her family on edge.

“It’s harassment. It’s surveillance. It’s policing. … It’s so stressful,” Healy said. “My child has been having trouble sleeping since the ACS visit: nightmares about being taken away from her home.”

During the COVID-19 shutdown and its aftermath in New York City, the number of child welfare cases and families separated has dropped sharply. But that has not led to an increased risk to children, as measured by factors ranging from youth fatalities to emergency room usage, said Arons, the NYU researcher. Her findings are detailed in a forthcoming paper

It all calls into question the role of child protective agencies, she said.

“I think there’s much more appetite and willingness to engage around the idea of: 'Do we need this level of surveillance? And do we need teachers to be in this role?' "

Teachers are already burning out:With staff exhausted, schools cancel class or return to remote learning

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Sign up for their newsletters