A nonprofit that helps New Yorkers with disabilities readied to open five new preschool classrooms this fall in Queens, recruiting teachers, purchasing new furniture, and notifying families that their children had been accepted.
Months later, the classrooms at HeartShare’s Howard Beach outpost sit empty because of a bureaucratic roadblock: a massive backlog of background check requests to New York City’s Department of Health means teachers haven’t been cleared to begin working.
Staffers in certain special education classrooms, after-school care programs, and other organizations that care for young children now must go through more rigorous Health Department-issued background checks because of recent changes at the federal and state level. The result has been a bottleneck — with serious consequences for schools and students.
Without the required clearances for its staffers, an after-school tutoring program in East New York had to cancel on about 300 students. An Upper West Side middle school serving low-income students is paying out-of-pocket to keep its after-school programming afloat for 100 children, as its regular program is on hold. HeartShare pre-K programs have been unable to enroll about two dozen toddlers with disabilities, leaving them without instruction and critical therapies.
“Parents, every day, are calling, ‘Please, when can my child start?’ I don’t even want to take the phone call, because what am I supposed to say,” said Carol Verdi, vice president of education services for HeartShare. “I can’t bring children in and just leave them in a classroom by themselves.”
Chris Treiber, who supports programs serving children with special needs through the nonprofit Interagency Council advocacy group, said schools like HeartShare are waiting for nearly 130 teachers and staff to be cleared, along with dozens of speech, occupational, and physical therapists.
“It’s a disaster,” he said.
At West Prep, a middle school on the Upper West Side, the organization providing after-school care was abruptly shut down as it waits for staff to get cleared. They’ve been told that could take 45 days. Meanwhile, the school has dug into its own budget to continue providing homework help, art lessons, and opportunities like boxing.
“All we want to do is tutor our kids,” said Cidalia Costa, a school staffer who is helping to make sure the after-school programming keeps running.
The holdups began mounting in September, when the state finally began to comply with a federal change requiring more thorough background checks for childcare providers — about a year past the deadline. After the state had missed a deadline to comply with the changes, the lapse put New York at risk of losing 5% of its Child Care and Development Block Grant, equivalent to tens of millions of dollars that help pay for childcare for low-income families, according to a federal audit in January 2019.
The state argued its hands had been tied in terms of compliance. It had to amend local law before meeting the federal regulations, and state legislators failed to approve changes until April 2019.
Once the state legislation was in place, it was up to New York City to determine how to carry out the new background checks, since the city regulates childcare services here. The responsibility fell to the Department of Health, which licenses childcare programs. The agency works with the Department of Investigation to handle fingerprinting, which can take up to a month to schedule an appointment.
The Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation could serve an additional 300 children with tutoring, healthy meals, and adult supervision after the school bell rings, but has been waiting since September for about 50 staffers to get cleared. In that time, more than a dozen potential employees have moved on to find jobs elsewhere.
After-care programs have been affected at 11 schools across East New York and Cypress Hills, communities where many parents struggle to make ends meet, and academic achievement lags. In the absence of after-school programming, officials with the organization say they have heard of children sitting at home alone, or parents taking on extra shifts to pay for childcare.
“It’s pretty devastating to children and families,” said Michelle Neugebauer, executive director of Cypress Hills.
The new regulations have been burdensome because they no longer allow employees to begin working, with supervision, while their background checks are processed. This change is particularly frustrating because in many cases, staffers have already been cleared through the city Department of Education’s background check process.
There are potential solutions. Other parts of the state are using contracted background check services, and providers say their peers outside the city have not run into such dramatic bottlenecks. Officials from the state and the city’s health department declined to explain why city programs couldn’t use those other — usually less costly — services.
The health department has made emergency hires and pulled in help from other parts of the agency to help clear the backlog, an agency spokesperson said. The investigations department has also bulked up its staff to meet “growing demand,” and handles almost 400 fingerprint requests a week, a spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, Rebeka Ahmed’s 3-year-old son has been sitting at home for weeks without going to school. The toddler had been receiving therapy at home for speech and developmental delays, but that stopped in December. He was supposed to enroll at HeartShare, the Queens program that has struggled to bring on new teachers.
“They say they’re going to open soon and they’re going to call us,” she said. “He needs it so badly.”
Ahmed spends her days going over shapes and letters with her son, but already notices him falling behind and is desperate to get him into school. The problem is she can’t find one that is close enough and has the services he requires.
“I try to every day, teach him again and play with him,” she said. “I don’t want him to fall back.”