Schools are uniquely positioned to identify and support grieving children, but families and school staff say the system isn’t equipped to serve them.
This story was produced in collaboration with THE CITY, Columbia Journalism Investigations, Type Investigations and City Limits as part of “MISSING THEM,” THE CITY’s COVID memorial and journalism project. Additional reporting by Muriel Alarcón.
In April 2020, as the death toll from COVID mounted across New York City, an elementary school teacher at P.S. 343, the Children’s Lab School, in Sunnyside, Queens, organized a virtual dance party to give her second-grade class some levity. One student, 8-year-old Yarely, had trouble signing on to the remote classroom.
“My dad is the one who is good with computers,” she told her teacher, “but he’s sick in bed.”
The student’s father, 32-year-old Diego Vintimilla, was a fixture at parent-teacher conferences and often helped Yarely with her classwork. That day, Vintimilla, an immigrant from Ecuador, managed to fix his daughter’s computer connection from his bed. He was hospitalized with COVID the next day.
Vintimilla died two weeks later.
Yarely returned to school the day after she was told of her father’s death, confused by what had happened to him. She asked her teacher where her father was.
Wanting to support her student, Yarely’s teacher met on video calls with the school social worker, parent coordinator and principal, but no one knew what to do, she recalls. She searched online, using phrases like “how to help grieving students” and cobbled together handouts. But she found herself struggling to help.
Yarely is one of more than 8,700 children in New York City who have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March 2020, nearly double the national rate.
These losses, like the coronavirus itself, have disproportionately struck families of color and immigrants. Black, Hispanic and Asian children in the city were roughly three times more likely to lose a caregiver in the home to COVID compared to white children, according to an analysis done in May by the COVID Collaborative, a public health effort to address the pandemic.
THE CITY, Columbia Journalism Investigations, Type Investigations and City Limits have spent a year documenting the NYC Department of Education’s response to COVID-bereaved children in public schools. We discovered that decades of underfunding mental health care left schools unprepared to handle the spike in needs during the pandemic. Amid that crisis, grieving students were largely overlooked and often didn’t get the help they needed.
Grief at School
We contacted dozens of immigrant families with children who lost parents or caregivers to COVID, using THE CITY’s Missing Them project and the GoFundMe pages that friends and families set up for funeral expenses. Of the 10 families we interviewed, roughly half said they had little to no grief-related support from their schools. Some sought help and didn’t receive it. Others were provided with counseling through their school, only to lose it a few months later.
Still others said they did not inform their schools of the loss because they doubted that they would get any support. Children who did find support, including Yarely, relied on individual teachers and school staff who used their own resources and personal time to tend to their grieving students.
A parent’s death is a monumental event in a child’s life. Research shows that most children can cope if they have support from their family and community. But for some children, losing a caregiver will have long-term consequences. They may struggle to stay in school, or face depression and anxiety as adults.
READ MORE: Kids Who Lost Parents to COVID, In Their Own Words
Experts say that schools can help mitigate such harms by providing immediate care and access to clinical assistance. Noting that schools are a “nearly universal touchpoint for school-aged children,” a December 2021 report from the COVID Collaborative recommends that schools be part of a “coordinated strategy” to identify and support COVID-grieving students.
New York City schools have yet to do that. In a recent interview with City Limits, THE CITY and its partners, former mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged that the Department of Education didn’t try to distinguish these students’ mental health needs from those of their peers at first.
“The situation was so profoundly troubling across the board,” de Blasio said. “The idea was that the need was so great: set up a system for everyone, and then individualize the solutions.”
But it’s not clear that an individualized response ever materialized. In interviews and survey responses, more than a dozen public school teachers, social workers and administrators described inadequate staffing for mental health support, limited training and a lack of clear guidance from the department. Many said the problems persist even now, nearly three years later.
Still Lacking Social Workers
The dearth of care for grieving students partly stems from an overall shortage of mental health support in New York City schools. Before the pandemic, the DOE employed only one full-time social worker for every 648 students attending public schools, a ratio more than twice as high as what is recommended by the National Association of Social Workers.
When the pandemic hit, zip codes with high concentrations of people of color and immigrants bore the brunt, seeing more cases of COVID illness ending in death than elsewhere, our analysis of city health and demographic data shows. And many schools in these areas were among those with inadequate staffing.
Western Queens, where the Children’s Lab School is located, had one of the highest COVID death rates in the city, and the worst ratio of school social workers to students in the city, before the pandemic. Across the city, 40 percent of traditional public schools had no full-time social worker, city data shows.
De Blasio said he knew about these deficiencies. As COVID-19 continued to spread, it became even more apparent to him and DOE officials. “Everyone was already perfectly [aware] that we were sitting on top of a huge problem,” he said.
In April 2021, a full year into the pandemic, he announced measures to tackle this shortfall. His administration budgeted approximately $300 million in COVID-relief federal funding over four years for school-based mental health services that could help all pandemic-impacted children. The DOE promised to hire 500 additional social workers and conduct social-emotional screenings of students.
Despite hiring hundreds of social workers in the fall of 2021, however, the ratio is still significantly higher than recommended. The number of bilingual-licensed social workers employed by the DOE has actually declined slightly during the pandemic even as the number of English language learners increased.
Recent reports reinforce our findings. An August 2022 audit by the New York state comptroller’s office found DOE officials haven’t hired enough mental health professionals or provided adequate training to school staff to address New York City students’ mental health issues.
Bereaved but Unknown
Tamara Mair, a senior director with the department, said DOE officials worked to tailor mental health support for grieving children to address what she calls “the tremendous amount of loss that was happening through the pandemic.” In an interview, the department highlighted the presence of crisis teams and voluntary teacher and staff trainings on grief sensitivity.
But crisis teams and other school staff can’t respond to grieving children if they aren’t identified. Crucially, the DOE did not implement universal screenings to identify bereaved students.
“I know that the Department of Education cares deeply about figuring out how to identify and serve these children,” said Catherine Jaynes, a senior director with the COVID Collaborative. “But they have to know about them to serve them.”
For some families we interviewed, children fell through the cracks due to this lack of screening. These families said they were reluctant to confide in school staff and received little encouragement to do so.
One mother from Queens, whose family is from Mexico, said her 17-year-old son floundered in his studies after his grandfather and two great-uncles died from the coronavirus over a span of months in 2020. She noticed her son growing more aloof and withdrawn at home; he had trouble concentrating on school work and his grades dropped. Yet she avoided telling his teachers about the deaths, she said, partly because she felt that educators at the Richmond Hill high school were overwhelmed by the challenges of remote learning and gave no indication of offering any resources to COVID-bereaved students.
“The schools did not give any emotional support to the children who lost family members,” she said. “They didn’t send emails or anything. There was no communication.”
Grasping for Support
In cases where the schools did know about the students’ losses, some families said staff failed to respond in a sensitive way.
Ibrahim, 11, started acting out in school after his mother, Fatma Atia, died of COVID in April 2020. He became loud and disruptive in class and got into arguments with other kids. At times, he felt the need to get out of his chair. “I would just think of my mom and just have a little mental breakdown,” said Ibrahim, who was born in the U.S. to parents who immigrated from Egypt.
The staff at his South Bronx middle school often complained about his behavior, said his father, Ashraf. A guidance counselor suggested counseling off-site, but the recommended psychologist had a wait list.
Ibrahim began counseling four months later and was prescribed medication. Since then, he has had fewer behavioral issues at school, Ashraf said, but the family is still struggling. “We try to live, we try to keep up with schoolwork,” he said, “but deep inside we’re all destroyed.”
Other families who did receive mental health support at school had trouble maintaining it.
Carol, 14, had trouble sleeping for almost two months after her stepfather died from COVID in April 2020. She spent her days and nights watching TV with her mother, an immigrant from Ecuador, making sure that her mother ate. “I don’t remember cooking for a long time,” said Margarita Rivas, Carol’s mother. “She was the one giving me spaghetti. And she told me: ‘Eat. I prepared this for you.’”
Carol saw a counselor through her high school in Fresh Meadows, Queens, Rivas said. But the arrangement only lasted a few months. When the sessions ended, Rivas struggled to find a private therapist that took her insurance. Carol saw a string of different therapists but gave up, Rivas said, because she was tired of “repeating the same thing every single time.”
Thirteen-year-old Joshua had been visiting a guidance counselor at his Washington Heights middle school every week to help him adjust to seventh grade. But Joshua lost his regular sessions when his counselor took a leave of absence—just before his stepfather died of COVID in April 2020. “He was distant,” said his mother, Charlene Budreau Simon. Joshua often skipped out on remote learning or refused to turn on his web camera when his teachers asked. “He was just like, ‘I can’t function like this right now.’”
The school’s only other counselor reached out to Joshua a few times, Budreau Simon said. But Joshua found it hard to communicate with her, and the school had no social workers on staff. Neither his school nor the others referenced above responded to requests for comment.
After Joshua finished eighth grade, the family moved to New Jersey where Budreau Simon said Joshua has access to a guidance counselor, a social worker, and a caseworker. “It’s so different from New York.”
The last time New York City schools faced widespread grief among students was after 9/11, when about 3,000 children, many of whom lived in the city, experienced the death of a parent.
The city moved quickly. In Staten Island, for instance, schools were told to report the names of children who lost someone close, according to Dominick Nigro, former director of the Office of Student Services for Staten Island Public Schools, who managed the borough’s response after the attacks. Those families were then offered individual and group grief counseling at school or within the DOE, Nigro said.
DOE also commissioned Dr. David Schonfeld, a pediatric bereavement specialist, to hold more than 50 full-day crisis response trainings for superintendents and other DOE staff members over the next two and a half years.
“I remember somebody came up to me and said, ‘We really should give this training for all the educators in the school system,’” Schonfeld said.
For a moment, given the sheer scale of 9/11, it seemed like that might come to pass, but DOE didn’t offer widespread grief-sensitivity training until more than a decade later.
In 2018, some city schools began to participate in the “Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative,” a national program to train educators to recognize signs of grief and potential triggers, and improve access to relevant services. In 2019, it tapped Schonfeld and the New York Life Foundation to offer that training to all city schools.
Then in early 2020, New York City quickly became the epicenter of the COVID pandemic. With DOE’s blessing, Schonfeld adjusted the trainings to focus on pandemic-related stress and grief. He said his work was particularly challenging at a time when children were attending school remotely, and when people dying of COVID or other conditions were isolated from their family members, putting traditional mourning rituals on hold.
More than 6,500 DOE staff members participated in the trainings between March 2020 and June 2022, according to the department. The DOE also has offered professional development seminars for school staff on how to support students coping with grief and loss, a spokesperson said. The agency estimates that approximately 75,000 staff and community members participated in those sessions from 2021-2022. (It declined to specify how many of those were school staff.)
Yet trainings like these are optional—a problem highlighted in the comptroller’s report, which recommended mandatory mental health training for all school staff members who interact with students daily.
Even Schonfeld’s initiative has failed to reach most staff, a disappointing coda to a bold plan. The organizers reported that just over 1,000 city schools underwent the training between April 2020 and June 2021, but only 20 percent of participating schools managed to train five or more employees.
‘Our Kids Are All in Crisis’
Many school staff members say their struggles to help COVID-grieving students were compounded by the education department’s failure to supply clear guidelines. No one we spoke with expected to see such standards handed down during the pandemic’s early days. But as it dragged on, the continued lack of guidance felt more surprising, they said.
DOE confirmed that it has avoided what it calls a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Instead, it noted that crisis teams, composed of school social workers, counselors and administrators, often are a “first line of defense” for grieving students.
Emily George, a former school social worker, remembers school social workers turning to the professional listserv that she moderates to find help during the pandemic. Many sought to fulfill urgent requests from their students’ families for food, housing and funeral assistance. Some wanted advice on legal services for immigrants; others on grief counseling for teens.
“Once the pandemic hit, everyone was like ‘Oh, mental health, what are we going to do?’” George said. “Our kids are all in crisis.”
Among the families we interviewed, 8-year-old Alejandro’s experience represented a rare example of a student who got adequate and consistent support at school. Alejandro lost his uncle, Victor Humberto Heras, to COVID-19 in April 2020. They were close: Humberto dropped him off at school every day and would make meals for him.
Alejandro has been receiving counseling through his elementary school in Washington Heights—individual sessions two times a week at first, and now group sessions. The sessions have helped him manage his grief and anger and come to terms with his uncle’s death, he said.
Most families who had a positive experience, however, attributed it to a teacher or social worker who extended themselves personally, often outside of regular working hours.
At the Children’s Lab School, Yarely’s teacher said she tried her best to help. After her father’s death, Yarely often showed up early to her online classes, clutching a stuffed animal. Frequently, she asked her teacher to stay behind after lessons had ended.
“Usually we would talk about my dad and how I felt about all that,” said Yarely.
Yarely took her teacher on virtual tours of her home, pointing the camera toward candles and photos in memory of her dad. She worried about how her mother would manage family finances, including payments for her father’s truck. “She was clearly just soaking up all kinds of fears and worries and concerns from everyone around her,” said Yarely’s teacher.
Yarely was obviously suffering. With her father gone and her mother working full time, she struggled to understand her schoolwork and stay motivated, said her mother, Adriana Culcay. The situation became dire in the summer of 2020, when a relative told her mother that Yarely had threatened to jump out the window to be with her father.
“She was just crying, crying, crying,” Culcay said.
Speaking Your Language
Not long after that incident, Culcay arranged virtual counseling sessions for Yarely through school. At the time, our analysis shows, the Children’s Lab School had one full-time social worker on staff—relatively uncommon among its west Queens counterparts. In the 2020-21 school year, DOE data shows that more than a quarter of traditional public schools did not have full-time or part-time social workers; another 11 percent of schools only had access to a part-time social worker.
In March 2021, de Blasio appointed Meisha Porter—a former Bronx teacher, principal and administrator—as education chancellor. In an interview, Porter said she had seen how COVID losses overwhelmed schools in her district and felt strongly about incorporating mental health support into DOE’s reopening plan.
Under Porter’s guidance, the department rolled out a plan to hire the 500 social workers, targeting schools hardest-hit by the pandemic.
By December 2021, eight months into the plan, around a third of public schools in neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID still did not have a full-time social worker, according to our analysis of DOE data.
Others had social workers but struggled to meet the needs of non-English speaking families. Studies show counseling is twice as effective if it’s in the language of the person seeking it.
DOE offers comprehensive translation services by phone that allowed social worker Jessica Chock-Goldman, who worked at Stuyvesant High School until July 2021, to communicate with non-English speaking parents about getting support for their children. But speaking through a translator makes it harder to talk about sensitive topics, like grief. “I remember in the beginning, we had so many kids who lost parents” to COVID, Chock-Goldman said, but she found it difficult to help them.
Typically, she arranges for clinicians with a shared ethnicity to talk with parent groups about ways their kids can work through stigmas related to mental health. “A lot of these families, in their country of origin for the parents, therapy is not the norm,” she said.
Carolina Nudo, the former social worker at Yarely’s school, has seen the benefits of language-specific counseling firsthand. At Children’s Lab School, more than half of the nearly 450 students are Latino and around a quarter are learning English. Nudo speaks Spanish and was able to communicate with Yarely’s family directly, including her mother Culcay, whose primary language is Spanish.
Yarely remembers learning breathing exercises during counseling sessions and being encouraged to do something that she loved as a way to feel better. She enjoys painting, so she recreated a beach sunset that she once watched with her father.
But Yarely missed some counseling sessions and her grades dropped while her mother worked at a new job for nearly 12 hours a day to make up for her late husband’s income. “I hardly paid attention,” Culcay said.
For grieving children from undocumented families, it can be harder to get help, said Jeanette Rodriguez, a counselor through a partner organization at I.S. 145 in Jackson Heights, where more than 90 percent of students are Hispanic. At least five of her students lost a parent or caregiver to COVID, she said. Undocumented parents may not know how to access health insurance, for instance, and can be too afraid to enroll their children in public services, for fear that the information might be shared with authorities.
“We tell them, ‘When you come here, you’re protected,’” Rodriguez said of undocumented parents. “We want them to feel safe.”
‘Grief is Not a Behavioral Problem’
Though some families we spoke with had positive encounters with their schools, others say they encountered obstacles that left them feeling stigmatized for seeking grief support.
Veronica Fletcher lost her husband, Joseph Trevor Fletcher, an MTA worker and immigrant from Grenada, to COVID in April 2020. When her three children returned to their Brooklyn public schools for in-person learning more than a year later, they each demonstrated signs of trouble.
Her oldest, Joshua, then 16, became hyper-focused on his studies, determined to graduate high school early. His brother, Ziggy, then 13, had nearly failed a class soon after their father’s death, and continued to be sad and distracted in school. And Maddie, then 9, seemed increasingly lonely. Frequently, she visited the schoolyard’s “buddy bench” to signal that she wanted company.
In October 2021, just weeks into the new academic year, Fletcher received a phone call from her younger children’s school, P.S. 207 in southeast Brooklyn, where COVID deaths have ranked among the highest in the city. She learned that Maddie had started crying during recess and, hours later, was still inconsolable. The teacher advised her to wait until pick-up to see her daughter, which struck Fletcher as insensitive. “When she came in the car, I just held her,” said Fletcher. “Her body was just racking with sobs.”
The school counselor referred Fletcher to a nonprofit that offers bereavement support and held a virtual meeting with Maddie in fall 2020. But for the sessions to continue, Fletcher said she was asked to submit a letter stating that her children needed “at-risk” support. Concerned that could harm her children’s school records, Fletcher said she was reluctant to do it.
In April 2022, she wrote to P.S. 207 Principal Neil McNeill, again asking about bereavement support. “Please, let me know what programs are in place at either the school or with DOE for my grieving children,” she wrote in the April 14 email. “If full grown adults often have difficulty with grieving a lost parent, imagine how much more traumatic it is for children to do so in a pandemic.”
In response, McNeill reminded Fletcher that she had effectively declined “at-risk grief counseling.” He invited her to tell him if the children wanted to speak with the school counselor or needed to walk out of their classrooms for a break. “We are here to support the kids in any way that we can,” he wrote. (The DOE declined to make McNeill available for an interview or respond to questions about the policy.)
But Fletcher’s position wouldn’t change. “Grief is not a behavioral problem,” she said, explaining why she objected to submitting an official request. “It’s not a mental illness.”
Fletcher had similar concerns when she heard about a new multimillion-dollar screening tool being used to evaluate children for mental health needs, known as the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment or DESSA.
Launched in 2021, the social-emotional assessment consisted of teachers filling out an online questionnaire using a five-measure scale from “never” to “very frequently” to rate a child’s behavior in roughly 40 scenarios. The questions include things like: “During the last four weeks, how often did the child carry himself/herself with confidence?” and “How often did the child show good judgment?”
But teachers and parents say these types of questions can fail to identify students who are experiencing the unique struggle of grieving a family loss. Instead, the COVID Collaborative recommends screenings designed specifically to find children who are bereaved.
De Blasio noted that the DESSA screener was always meant to be only one step in the process. “There was not an assumption that a single universal screener would answer all questions, but it would be the beginning of identifying who needed further evaluation,” he said.
Former schools Chancellor Porter defends the DESSA, noting that she chose it, in part, because it emphasized positive traits like confidence and self-esteem rather than negative behaviors. But she said that schools could have used more support in implementing it. "It was a lot that had to happen,” she said.
New Administration Slashes School Budgets
Since Eric Adams took over as mayor in January 2022 and appointed David Banks as education chancellor, the two have said little about how the new administration will address the city’s COVID-grieving schoolchildren. The Department of Education declined to make Banks available for an interview for this story.
In September, Adams and Banks announced that 110 social workers would be reassigned from the early childhood division to the city’s public schools, a DOE spokesperson said. It is unclear what, if any, impact the move will have on schools in the neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19.
Last fall, Yarely started fifth grade. She enjoys math, she said—it reminds her of how her father used to help her with homework.
Culcay said her daughter’s academic performance is still not at the level it was at before her husband died. And since social worker Nudo has retired, Yarely stopped receiving any counseling in school. “I only tell her the stuff,” Yarely said, referring to her mother.
But she has grown to accept her father’s death—something Culcay credits the school with helping her realize.
In February 2021, Yarely and one of her father’s cousins traveled back to Ecuador with her father’s ashes. Recently, Yarely has learned to cook rice with sausage and eggs and fold her laundry while her mother is at work. People comment on how mature she’s become, Culcay said. “I say, ‘Yes because [her] father is no longer there and it’s just me.’”
Veronica Fletcher says her children are beginning to adjust to life without their father. She moved to Georgia in August. When the new school learned that their father had died, the counselor recommended a weekend-long grief camp, which her kids all attended in October. "I had to move to another state for someone to offer my children an opportunity that I asked for in New York."
Fletcher still feels disappointed by the lack of support she received from the city’s school system. “They are children who have suffered loss. They get through it with support,” she said, “and the support should not be absent in a place where they spend most of their day.”
Liz Donovan and Fazil Khan produced this story as reporters, respectively, for City Limits and Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School. It was produced in partnership with THE CITY and Type Investigations, two nonprofit newsrooms that provided reporting, editing, fact-checking and other support.
Type Investigations freelance reporter Muriel Alarcón and CJI reporting fellow Chris Riotta contributed reporting. Research by Columbia Journalism School’s Shannon Rose Geary, Shelby Jouppi, Amanda Torres and Jessica Vadillo and THE CITY’s intern Emi Tuyetnhi Tran. Translation by freelance journalist Lila Hassan and City Limits reporter Daniel Parra. Fact-checking by Paco Alvarez and Ethan Corey for Type Investigations.
THE CITY’s Missing Them project is supported, in part, by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia Journalism School. City Limits’ series on behavioral health and NYC’s children is supported by the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York; City Limits is solely responsible for the content and editorial direction.