New York City has spent more than $60 million this year to help thousands of new migrant students who require a host of assistance — exacerbating the need for basic health care, bilingual education and mental health services throughout the public education system.
The effort to help the new students was central to a special series of City Council hearings held Monday and Tuesday, and city officials are bracing for more migrant children to enter schools next year.
Roughly 9,800 new students from homeless shelters have enrolled in city schools since July, said Melissa Ramos, who heads the Department of Education's effort to integrate the newly arrived children into classrooms across the five boroughs. The city doesn’t track families’ immigration status, but many of those kids come from migrant families bused to New York from states along the southern border.
Ramos said 40% of the newly arrived children are ages 5 and under, but there are also many older children — including teens — with no school records. She said the city dispatches staff to shelters to help families enroll their children in schools, and in some cases walk them to school buildings on their first day.
“At every level, from schools to shelters to DOE’s central offices, we are working to ensure a smooth transition for all students,” Ramos said.
The undertaking has been enormous, and put significant pressure on the city’s school system — a strain that is only expected to increase if more migrant families arrive in New York, city officials said during this week’s Council hearings.
Facing a surge of thousands of asylum-seekers, Mayor Eric Adams in August launched “Project Open Arms,” a multiagency plan to help migrant students adjust to their new normal. But as the number of students has grown, new struggles have risen.
Most of the newly arrived children are unvaccinated, which has become a key focus for health officials, Dr. Ted Long, senior vice president of Ambulatory Care and Population Health at New York City Health + Hospitals, said during Monday’s hearing..
“I did not expect this proportion of children to come in that are absolutely unvaccinated,” Long said. “We have the opportunity to really do better by them.”
Students must have proof of certain vaccinations — like measles, mumps and rubella shots — to attend the city’s public schools, setting off a scramble to get them the required shots.
Long said the city's health department has dispatched teams to shelters to give new students their shots, but noted that not all students are fully vaccinated when they start school. The city’s health officials are in a race to keep up, as students are required to complete their vaccination series within 30 days of enrollment.
The new students have also put the city’s education department in a fiscal crunch.
As new students arrived in classrooms this fall, school administrators watched their class sizes increase dramatically and struggled to support them by organizing donation drives on the fly.
Since then, the city has spent more than $60 million to support the new students, Ramos said. She said the funding can be used for curricular and family “support,” which includes substitutes and supplies but cannot be used to pay the salary of a new full-time employee.
But Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said restricting the funds makes it harder for schools to adequately serve new students.
“Prohibiting schools from spending these funds to hire additional full-time staff to work with these students — even when that is the greatest need – remains a concern,” Mulgrew said in a prepared testimony submitted to the Council.
The city’s Independent Budget Office estimates that it will cost the city $8,200 annually to educate each student from asylum-seeking families.
A shortage of bilingual teachers
Advocates said the recent arrivals have amplified the need for more bilingual teachers and programs, a long-standing challenge for the city’s public schools. Approximately 147,000 students in the city’s public schools are considered English language learners, according to education department statistics. But, according to the United Federation of Teachers, fewer than 3,000 teachers are certified as bilingual instructors — approximately one bilingual educator for every 47 students who do not speak English.
Educators who only speak English have reported relying on bilingual students in their classes to translate for their new Spanish-speaking peers.
“We have heard from parents whose children are placed in monolingual English classrooms… as well as students placed at schools that do not have needed bilingual staff,” said Diana Aragundi, senior staff attorney at Advocates for Children New York. She said schools also need bilingual special education teachers and social workers.
Ramos said the city is doing its best to match students to schools with bilingual programs and staff while maintaining a manageable commute to their shelters. At the same time, Ramos said, the city is continuing to recruit bilingual teachers and social workers.
Still, Mulgrew said, teachers are struggling. “Most teachers we have heard from feel they are on their own as they try to support these students every period of every day.”