Directors at city-funded summer camps felt a spark of hope this week: Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that day camps could open June 29, as New York begins its phased-in reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But these providers, who serve thousands of low-income children, still face a major hurdle. Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed cutting their funding from New York City’s budget for next fiscal year.
The announcement allows providers to begin thinking, “what is the safe way to do this? I was hopeful about that piece,” said Julie Stein Brockway, executive director at Sunset Park’s Center For Family Life, which provides summer programming for 2,000 young New Yorkers.
Her spirits quickly crashed when she recalled that her program remains unfunded if the current budget wins approval.
The governor’s announcement on Tuesday came with no details. A spokesperson said that health guidelines were coming, but as of Wednesday no details had been released.
The state has some confidence that summer programs can open in person, to some degree, Cuomo’s announcement indicates, though the governor did not specify whether New York City camps were part of his vision. The de Blasio administration believed summer programs couldn’t open because of public health concerns, and announced in April that publicly funded summer youth programs would be canceled, proposing nearly $235 million in cuts that wiped out the city’s summer youth employment program as well as other summer options.
“In light of [the governor’s announcement], in light of just the real need we’re seeing in communities for summer support, [and] the fact that it looks like New York City is on track to reopen slowly throughout the summer, we are really calling on the city to restore funding for all of the programs that were cut in the budget,” said Nora Moran, director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, which represents settlement houses that provide summer programs for youth.
Education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said the city was still awaiting state public health guidance on day camps and will work with providers to “safely serve students.”
De Blasio’s proposed cuts come as the city braces for more than a $9 billion revenue shortfall, due to the economic fallout driven by the pandemic. If the City Council accepts his proposal, the Department of Youth and Community Development — the agency overseeing summer youth programming — would see a 37% cut next fiscal year, affecting programs that serve thousands of low-income families during the school year and the summer.
Some providers, organizations, and elected officials have criticized the de Blasio administration for proposing broad cuts to youth programs while making relatively minimal cuts elsewhere, such as to salaries for top staffers or a proposed 1% cut for the NYPD. Calls to more broadly cut the police department’s budget have grown even louder in recent days amid nationwide protests around the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Final budget negotiations between the City Council and the de Blasio administration could result in last-minute funding for summer programs. Still, it’s unlikely such negotiations would fully restore those dollars, given the city’s financial situation, elected officials have previously warned. The city’s budget must be finalized by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and the council are “very concerned” with the proposed cuts and asked the mayor to identify 5-7% cuts at agencies that haven’t seen huge slashes, a spokesperson for Johnson’s office said in a statement.
Both the council and City Hall are considering “alternatives” that providers and advocates have proposed, according to officials in both offices.
“Due to COVID-19 we have lost billions of dollars in tax revenue and are focused on protecting the health and safety of New Yorkers and making sure everyone has food on their tables and roofs over their heads,” said Laura Feyer, a City Hall spokesperson, in a statement. “We will continue having conversations with the City Council about our mutual priorities as we work towards budget adoption.”
For months, providers have said they can offer online options, pointing to virtual after-school programming they’ve provided since the transition to remote learning.
Queens Community House, which provides programming for 3,000 children, has been holding counseling sessions and setting up virtual after-school activities for students in communities hard hit by the pandemic, including Corona, Jamaica, and Jackson Heights. The organization has been a “lifeline” for children they work with, many of whom have lost relatives, said Oswald Araujo, director of the organization’s Beacon services, one of the city’s school-based programs.
“Parents are saying, ‘This is the one thing my daughter looks forward to every day,’” Araujo said. “These children have been devastated.”
If funding came through, Queens Community House could offer similar virtual programming for about three to four hours daily including check-ins, academic programming and activities, such as a virtual trip to Mars, said Helena Ku, associate director of youth services.
Brockway, whose organization provides a host of after school and summer programs, said her team is planning for virtual, in-person, and hybrid programming. They would likely aim for three-week cycles. One idea: Set up camp for 80 children in the morning and another 80 in the afternoon to maintain social distancing. They would provide virtual programming that could serve another 100 children. That would require the use of a school building, as Brockway’s organization typically does in the summer, though without state health guidelines it’s unclear whether the education department would provide access as school buildings remain closed.
Brockway argued that some in-person programming would help prepare children for social distancing rules at school for the fall, such as temperature checks or sitting in a classroom with desks far apart. Her organization has become accustomed to such rules while helping out at one of the city’s child care centers for essential workers in Sunset Park.
But without any concrete answers, providers have notified staffers of possible furloughs and layoffs. Some are expecting a big scramble to get programming in place as they await answers on the city budget and now, answers from the governor’s office on how in-person camps can work.
“Given the situation that the mayor has put us in, we have no choice but to really plan for the worst case scenario,” Araujo said. But he’s worried that if they end up being allowed to operate in July, it could be too late. “We may lay off our staff by then.”