BY ALAN JAY GERSON | This past Monday afternoon, Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth sponsored a youth town hall. More than 16 New York City upper elementary and middle school students expressed themselves on how the issues of the day impact them, starting with COVID-19, while others chatted in. They spoke with a panel of educators and emotional health experts for close to two hours. You can view the town hall at GIVINGTV.ORG/SGTV.
The young people evinced amazing self-awareness, contextual understanding, resiliency and hope. At the same time, they expressed understandable anxiety, fear and confusion over their immediate future this summer and beyond.
The students articulated impressively valid ideas, worthy of public officials, for their city government to safeguard both their physical and emotional health. Their pleas, voices and suggestions make it clear that our city’s failure to heed their ideas and the underlying concerns by putting in place a comprehensive summer 2020 youth plan could shift the emotional states of New York City youth from the more positive and hopeful feelings to the more negative and despairing ones, with long-term implications for their lives and our city.
Young people’s need and yearning to have fun outdoors, to exercise and to socialize with friends and peers, yet uncertainty and worry over how to do so safely, constituted the overarching COVID-related theme of student remarks.
They presented thoughtful, practical suggestions, such as keeping school gyms (and schoolyards) open for a limited number of students at any one time, and expanded day camp. One student pointed out that it would be safer for them to attend day camp, with counselor supervision and safety precautions, than to hang out together on the sidewalk unsupervised.
Student speakers demonstrated awareness and sensitivity to others by pointing out that some of their classmates experienced greater difficulty than others during the stay-at-home period due to their living situations. Many of our students live in the South Bronx, a low-income COVID hot spot, where kids have been holed up in small, overcrowded apartments, afraid to go outside.
Many have experienced dire financial hardship, and many have experienced the loss of loved ones, including several who have lost both parents. For these kids, especially, safe, outdoor social activity, with availability of emotional health counseling, is not just a health benefit — it’s a health necessity.
Based on the concerns and ideas of the kids, a summer 2020 plan could include the following measures:
~ The city must publish an informational pamphlet on “How to Have Fun this Summer While Staying Safe.” The pamphlet should set forth specific best practices as to when to wear and not wear a mask when engaging in exercise or sports, and what type of mask; which sports are O.K. to engage in and which are not; how one should wipe down a ball or other common equipment; when should you wear gloves; what about freeze tag and double Dutch, and so on.
Government bureaucrats, probably guided by government lawyers, usually don’t like to get into such specifics. But they must realize that when they refrain from doing so, they shift an unfair weight burden on to the shoulders of children.
~ The city should establish scattered-site stations in parks and other places of youth congregation for children to pick up, free of charge, the recommended personal protective equipment.
~ The children are right. The city should open parks, issue permits and fund a major day camp expansion. This should be the summer of universal day camp for elementary and middle school students, with the necessary safeguards and supervision.
~ This could also be the summer of universal swimming instruction. Open the pools, not to the usual overcrowded hordes but for hour-long swimming instruction sessions for limited numbers of young people at a time. Perhaps some of the same equipment used to sanitize subways could sanitize locker rooms in between sessions.
~ Playgrounds and ball fields should be staffed with youth workers to oversee free play and organize impromptu games. Back in the day, these workers were regular playground and ball field fixtures. Now’s the time to bring ’em back, especially with so many unemployed sleepaway camp counselors.
~ The city should open school facilities, schoolyards, gyms and auditoriums for walk-in sports, art, drama, dance and other safe activity.
~ Libraries should open for youth hours to encourage young people to read and explore, both online and in hard copy.
~ School buildings should also remain open for kids to be able to walk in and speak with a mental health professional if they feel the need. The city should establish a dedicated youth hotline staffed by trained counselors.
~ Bring kids to nature. All of our botanical gardens should open with youth activities. The city could provide every neighborhood school over the course of the summer a bus trip for a day in the great outdoors. One memorable day makes a difference. Nature heals. This would also help support school bus drivers who have been out of work all this time.
~ Similarly, our science and art museums could open for youth activity, with school buses to pick up and drop off the children.
~ For the older kids, rather than cancel it, the city should expand the Summer Youth Employment Program, with safe work regulations.
~ For children with special needs, government must assure accessible activity with safeguards against any special vulnerabilities.
~ The city could also enact a program of rotating street closures for the purposes of creating additional play streets, with play supervisors present. This summer could see a revival of the games Sophie Gerson fondly recalled: kickball, hopscotch, stoop ball, box ball and more.. We could add in street theater.
Of course, our town hall students also addressed race relations and police brutality. They surprisingly expressed little vitriol and a lot of deep desire, determination and demand to put racism behind us once and for all. They criticized looters and expressed the wish to be able to trust their police officers, which they don’t feel all that comfortable doing now.
The police are not going away. Perhaps as we put in place reforms to weed out unfit officers, groups of good officers of different backgrounds could participate in some of the summer play streets or other programs, so that the children get to know them, and the officers gain heightened sensitivity to the children of the communities they serve — kind of like community service for police.
~ The city’s Department of Youth and Community Development should organize additional youth town halls, as Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth will do, to provide young people with a platform on which to opine. It became clear in the course of this past town hall, that publicly expressing themselves — with listening adults — in and of itself provided beneficial, therapeutic value to the youth; it bolstered their self-esteem and made the young people feel that their society maybe really does care about them and what they feel and have to say.
The kids can, as we heard, provide excellent advice and insight to the grown-ups. Children express themselves in different ways — some in public speaking, others on video or in anonymous chat, others through art or by just listening and applauding or not. We should accommodate all.
The city has done just about all of the above in the past, just not in a coordinated, concerted fashion as is now required. So, it shouldn’t be too hard to mobilize all of this by mid-July or so. Alternatively, any number of youth organizations and settlement houses would step up and organize such a comprehensive program in their neighborhoods if the city provides a green light and a modicum of funding.
The cost of four to six weeks of such programs will be negligible in the context of the city’s $90 billion operating budget. It certainly will be negligible when compared to costs of dealing with the consequences of a missed summer on top of a missed school semester.
It’s just a question of leadership willing to make children’s needs a top priority.
Gerson is a former city councilmember who represented Lower Manhattan’s First District and served on the Council’s Youth Committee. He is president of Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth, a nonprofit youth services organization named for his mother that perpetuates Sophie Gerson’s accomplishments in education by bringing enrichment programs and summer camp opportunities to middle-school students in very low-income neighborhoods.