New York City opened dozens of regional centers last month that serve the children of health care workers, first responders, and transit employees during a systemwide school shutdown due to the new coronavirus.
These centers will also be available to a slew of other “essential” workers, including those in grocery stores or pharmacies, and a few more city agencies, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
A March executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that requires all workers of non-essential businesses to stay home won’t affect the regional centers or food distribution for children, said Katie O’Hanlon, a spokesperson with the education department.
Here’s what we know about what the city is calling Regional Enrichment Centers and its efforts to keep children fed.
Children who are New York City residents, and whose parents are first responders, health care providers, or transit workers are eligible.
Also eligible are the children of people who work in sanitation, at homeless shelters, or in the regional centers themselves, as well as child abuse investigators, corrections department employees, among other categories of workers. The city is reaching out directly to families who can enroll.
On March 25, the mayor expanded that list to other “essential” staff in grocery stores or pharmacies, as well as those who work on the Staten Island and New York City ferries, or at the Department of Environmental Protection or the Department of Probation. Additional staffers at the Department of Health who were not previously eligible are also now able to enroll their children at the enrichment centers.
Last week, the city added to the list children of restaurant, food, delivery, and residential and commercial building workers.
The centers will serve children with disabilities. All sites are fully or partially accessible, O’Hanlon said.
Public and private school students in 3-K through 12th grade can enroll. For younger children, the state has allowed childcare centers to remain open. The education department did not immediately respond to questions about how frontline workers can find and enroll in centers that have kept their doors open.
The city is expanding the type of essential workers who can enroll their children because attendance “hasn’t been as robust as we anticipated,” Carranza said March 25. Originally the city had opened 93 centers with the capacity for about 40,000 children. But citing low enrollment, the city closed 23 of those centers last month.
De Blasio said the city could open centers to more essential workers as it monitors enrollment numbers or could shrink the centers, as needed. Alternately, the mayor suggested the city could expand the number of centers if demand exceeds capacity.
“We have about 5,000 volunteers that are staffed at those centers so we’re confident that we’re gonna be able to meet the need of whoever needs those centers,” Chancellor Richard Carranza said.
Fill out this survey. The education department will then contact qualifying families with a center assignment that is close to their home.
Not included — at least for now — are homeless students and others whose families have been deemed “essential” workers.
There are about 114,000 students in New York City’s public schools who live in shelters, are doubled-up in cramped apartments, or otherwise lack stable housing. About a dozen advocacy groups sent the chancellor a letter last month calling on the city to allow those children to be cared for at the centers. Comptroller Scott Stringer and a few other elected officials called for the same on April 1.
“Picture a parent of children at multiple grade levels spending their time in a hotel room. That’s not an appropriate space for learning,” said Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children, which signed on to the letter. (Some homeless families are housed in commercial hotels.)
“Students who are homeless have worse education outcomes than their permanently housed peers and we’re very concerned they’re going to fall further behind in the coming weeks,” Levine added.
Though schools are closed, New York City’s approximately 75,000 teachers are expected to continue working, shifting all of their instruction online. They’ll also have to juggle caring for their own young children, who aren’t allowed to enroll in the regional centers.
Cuomo’s shutdown of “non-essential” businesses carved out specific exemptions for those who can continue working. That list covers a whole host of workers who won’t be able to rely on the city’s regional centers, including those in grocery stores, food banks, restaurants, and more.
City officials have said it’s possible the centers will open to more children, including those living in shelters. There was no word Wednesday on that possibility. De Blasio emphasized that the centers were “about essential workers.”
“That’s really the crucial crux of this matter — is making sure we are supporting these essential workers and giving them those options in terms of their kids,” de Blasio said.
Families can pick up three meals at once at one of 400 school buildings around the city. You can find the closest place to your home here. The sites will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
You do not need to pre-register or present identification. All individuals 18 and younger are eligible.
Families can also call 311, or search for “free meals” at schools.nyc.gov. Beginning Monday, they can text the word “food” or, in Spanish, “comida” to 877 877 for information about nearby sites.
O’Hanlon, the education department spokeswoman, said meal deliveries will be made to shelters.
The city does not recommend that students who need medical attention attend the centers — despite lobbying efforts from elected officials and advocates. However, the city is partnering with the delivery app DoorDash to bring food to those students at their homes. Details were not released Friday night.
Additionally, a spokesperson for the mayor said the city is working with the health department “to ensure students who are medically fragile have access to medical services, including nurses.”
“We have been in touch with those families to provide services,” said City Hall spokesperson Freddi Goldstein.
Reema Amin and Alex Zimmerman contributed.