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Challenges Emerge As Kids' Support Systems Move Online

ANYA SCHULTZ, HOST: New York City schools have now been closed for almost two months due to coronavirus, which means over 1 million kids are now learning remotely. And in-person instruction wasn't the only thing to disappear from kids’ lives. Extracurriculars, like sports, clubs, therapy, and mentorship programs helping at-risk youth, all went online. Some made the transition seamlessly while others struggled with adapting. Brett Forrest reports on the challenges and successes of these resources going virtual.

BRETT FORREST, BYLINE: For Rosie Peralta, getting online comes with challenges.

((SOUND Phone Tape: I see Rosie back in. Rosie, can you try talking in Zoom right now? If not, we’re texting you a phone number to call. Ok, can you still hear me? Rosie are you there? Rosie’s not in yet is she?)

FORREST: It took about 25 minutes of calling, texting, and talking into the unknown to finally establish a good connection for Rosie’s interview. Once on, she was excited to speak.

ROSIE PERATLA: I am 11, turning 12, and I am in the 5th grade.

FORREST: Rosie’s connection issues signal a larger problem many New York City youth are facing. Unreliable technology or internet connection. Rosie has been quarantined in a Manhattan apartment with her 3 younger brothers, mom, and grandma. And it’s hard to be home all the time.

PERATLA: I'm kind of sad. Yeah. Because like, I miss my friends and like 

my teachers and stuff. So I talk to them on Facetime and I text them a lot.

FORREST: She can’t hang out with friends in her building, like she used to. Or play piano at school. She has access to a computer and her mom’s phone at home, but she’s had problems with spotty internet... and family interruptions.

FORREST: So is that distracting when you're trying to do schoolwork online? Or are they always running around?

PERALTA: Yes. Every time I have a meeting with my teachers, they always like yell and stuff. I'm like, shut up. Like, be quiet. I need to listen to my teachers.

FORREST: But classes aren't the only activity that moved online for Rosie. She’s also a Little Sister in Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York. A one-to-one mentorship program that matches at-risk youth with an adult role model. Her Big Sister, Elise Ford, says they met up about once a month for the past 3 ½ years, but now, they actually connect more often during quarantine.

ELISE FORD: I feel like we've been talking even more just even like little texting things and we're really into the FaceTime and having a lot of fun with tiktok and yoga. So there's a lot of virtual activities that we've done together.

PERALTA: We'll just talk more and I feel like we know each other more than we did like before.

FORREST: Ford was worried about their match when the shutdown happened. She didn’t know how she was going to come up with virtual outings, but she wanted to still be there for Rosie. Big Brothers Big Sisters provided a lot of ideas and resources, but Ford eventually thought of her own.

FORD: It's just like the movement piece. So if it's dancing, or if it's yoga, it's just feels so good at this moment since can't really go outside much. But like Rosie even said, I feel like we've actually been closer now, more than ever before, just because it's such this shared experience. And we're both in the city and we're just both there for each other.

FORREST: Rosie is just one of the 53-hundred children that Big Brothers Big Sisters serves throughout the city. Speaking from her home in Riverdale, Bronx, Alicia Guevara, CEO of the organization, says their mission to provide a mentor for the kids is more important now than ever before.

ALICIA GUEVARA: They've been completely uprooted from their schools, their daily home life routines look different, and their social lives have been impacted too. And so the value of the mentoring relationship has certainly increased tremendously.

FORREST: Guevara says 100% of their matches have been able to convert virtually, whether that means over video, phone, or texting. But it isn’t a perfect substitute.

GUEVARA: The human connection just isn't there in a way that our bigs and littles are accustomed to seeing it. And because our bigs and littles are not meeting in person, all they have is technology to rely on and for some of our littles, they are absolutely in the space of the digital divide.

FORREST: That digital divide: poor WiFI or No internet devices...It’s something that Big Brothers Big Sisters is trying to help close so the mentorship can continue.

GUEVARA: We have invested in technology and purchased devices for our littles. We're looking to acquire hotspots for our littles so that we can ensure that at least they have this technology to remain connected to their bigs, but more importantly, to continue to minimize the disruptions to their education.

FORREST: But there are some services that are harder to move online. Melissa Stanger is a psychotherapist and social worker based in Manhattan and Queens. 

She also says the lack of other resources found at school is disrupting kids’ lives. 

MELISSA STANGER: They were getting support in school from either, you know, a school social worker or a guidance counselor. Certain teachers, if they have an Individualized Education Plan. And at home, they can't get those same resources. It's It's been a struggle for some of them to still meet the requirements that school was able to help them meet.

FORREST: Stanger says some kids really need that strong structure school provides to succeed.

STANGER: When they're at school and they can get those supports there, you know, that really helps them to thrive and when they're when the absence of those supports, you know, especially with parents who may not be financially able or emotionally able to provide those supports, Kids really do need structure in order to grow.

FORREST: Still, for many kids, the shift online was a natural one. They're used to communicating through technology. Stanger’s even seen some surprising benefits in her therapy.

STANGER: Working with youth in this platform. You know, I think has given some of my clients the freedom to say things that they might not have said in person. You know, they feel a little less inhibited, maybe by an in person interaction.

FORREST: That said, Stanger’s looking forward to seeing clients in her office again. When it comes to building rapport and trust, she said some things are best done in person. Brett Forrest, Columbia Radio News.


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