Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve heard from my Bangladeshi Kensington neighbors about how their families are adjusting to remote learning and engaging in the fight over reopening schools this Fall.
These conversations make it clear: the Department of Education has failed to deliberately center immigrant families and students in its planning. The outcome of this systemic exclusion is devastating. Even before COVID-19, New York City’s multilingual and English language learners (MLLs and ELLs) had the worst high school drop-out rate of any population, despite evidence that MLLs and ELLs outperform fluent English-speaking peers in school when connected with adequate support.
While the “immigrant experience” is not monolithic, our xenophobic political environment, combined with the physical and mental toll of COVID-19, place serious strain on the mental health of immigrant and non-English speaking communities across the City. Access to quality mental health services was already out of reach for many of our City’s immigrant families because of cost, lack of culturally and linguistically competent healthcare providers, fear of accessing care due to immigration status, and stigma. As we prepare for the start of one of the most tumultuous school years in New York City history, how can we better support the mental health and wellbeing of New York’s immigrant students and their families?
For immigrant students living in multigenerational homes, the lack of privacy will intensify an already stressful school year. One of my neighbors noted her young children are “always bored and frustrated, throwing temper tantrums or on the verge,” a result of being “cooped up in a crowded apartment with extended family members.” For older students, sharing physical spaces with family can hinder safe and open conversations about culturally stigmatized topics like sexuality, gender identity, and relationships, which can constrict socioemotional growth, particularly for queer and trans students.
It is crucial that the City Council plays a role in helping immigrant families and providing resources to navigate the emotional impacts of COVID-19. The City Council must allocate more funding towards mobile mental health resources, like phone call and text messaging-based counseling, and other no-cost and socially distanced emotional support. While the City technically offers all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, mental-health support through programs like ThriveNYC, we must also fund trusted, community non-profits to provide free or low-cost, culturally-responsive therapy for our City’s immigrant communities, with funding for language-specific outreach. These organizations can partner with local school districts to make sure this information is reaching immigrant households, and connect families with multilingual, culturally competent guidance counselors and social workers.
All school outreach programs, from parental surveys to counseling, must center limited English proficient households. As one Kensington mom told me, “other Bangladeshi moms and I are having a hard time reaching school representatives. I feel helpless. I wish the school did regular check-ins in Bangla.”
Outreach is a site of technological access disparities; schools must use ethnic media (newspapers and news channels that air on Facebook) and paper correspondences to effectively reach out to immigrant families; one parent noted that “no one called me for my opinions, it would’ve been great if I could share my thoughts. The primary exchanges have happened over email and I’m not comfortable with email.” In the long term, the Council should support and fund organizers around Community WiFi; one parent noted: “at home, we’ve really struggled with internet issues.”
The loss of communal physical spaces, like classrooms and cafeterias, have serious long-term consequences on student socioemotional wellbeing. One parent confided that she was “worried about the long term psychological effects from being homebound. My youngest daughter doesn’t want to talk to people.” Access to physical spaces away from family and household members helps students to safely and openly form socioemotional bonds and foster socio-emotional development.
The City Council must leverage the Department of Transportation’s Open Streets program, and reimagine it as a tool to provide much-needed social space for students. Efforts to expand the Open Streets program must center equity and inclusion by removing police presence, expanding the geographic distribution of designated open streets to immigrant enclaves lacking open public spaces, and creating pedestrian-oriented plazas and play streets that make streets safer for children. Open spaces can resolve the lack of a physical gathering space and provide a way for students to play, socialize, and create meaningful friendships outside of the household.
As it gets colder, the City should also look into using existing public indoor spaces to create social distancing spaces for students to safely gather outside the home. One parent expressed that “if local libraries or other community-based centers opened up to allow a small group of students to study, get homework help, I’d feel comfortable with my children gathering in those places.”
For Brooklyn’s immigrant households, the start of one of the most challenging school years in recent history also comes with an additional layer of stress: navigating hateful, xenophobic policies from every level of government.
Despite New York City’s status as a “sanctuary city,” anti-immigrant local policies, such as the NYPD’s continued cooperation with ICE, harms families, erodes trust in public institutions, and discourages families from reaching out for support. This toxic anti-immigrant environment undermines efforts to connect overworked parents with mental health services for themselves, while trying to keep their children engaged in school, keep rent paid, and make sure food is on the table. It is crucial that immigrant households have reliable access to food, childcare, and income.
The Council must increase funding and support for family-care centers, food pantries, meal hubs, free lunch programs, and fund emergency grants and income-support programs that serve undocumented New Yorkers. Improving socio-emotional wellbeing for immigrant students and households requires systemic change that will allow all of us to thrive in our City.