The Backstory: Fazil Khan and Liz Donovan

Reporting on Children Who Lost Parents to the Pandemic

Since the beginning of the pandemic, thousands of children in New York City — disproportionately those who are Black, Hispanic, and Asian — have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, nearly double the national rate. In their newest article, “The Pandemic Robbed Thousands of NYC Children of Parents. Many Aren’t Getting the Help They Need,” produced in partnership with The City, Columbia Journalism Investigations, and City Limits, reporters Fazil Khan and Liz Donovan investigated the city’s response to the influx of grieving children, and spoke to immigrant families who said they aren’t getting the help they need.

In this conversation, we talk to Fazil and Liz about what it was like reporting on the crisis for over a year, how they reached out to grieving families, and their difficulties getting answers from the New York Department of Education.

Paco Alvarez: What initially inspired the investigation? And what were the first steps both of you took? 

Fazil Khan: I’ll try to answer that question because, we started this story – not exactly this story, how it ended up to be – we started thinking of ideas in late 2021. Because we had been in the pandemic for more than a year at that point of time, and things seemed like they were getting back to normal. So we thought of coming up with an idea or reporting something, investigating something that would look at the long term impacts of the pandemic and how communities, marginalized communities or vulnerable communities, were getting affected by it and how the pandemic had changed their lives in permanent ways. 

So we started looking into some ideas, did some initial reporting, and somewhere towards the end of the year, we came across – through our interviews, we got to know that there’s this group of children who who’ve lost parents or caregivers to COVID 19, and it is around the same time when reports were coming out, which were like basically estimating that this could be the number that we’re looking at of such kids. And around the same time we came across social worker numbers in New York City schools. We wanted to focus the story on New York City, so we came across these numbers and then we came across hearings of the Committee on Education, what they were discussing around this subject. And slowly through our interviews, we started realizing that this was something that was going on. And that’s how basically we came to the point where we thought that this is a story that we want to pursue. And this is specifically something that we want to investigate. 

Alvarez: You mentioned the data on the number of social workers. A large part of the investigation is based on your analysis of that data. And I was curious, how did you get your hands on the data for the social workers? And how did the analysis happen? 

Khan: Yeah. So I am not a U.S. citizen, I am from India. And when we started thinking about that, we were we wanted to look into mental health resources in New York City schools. I just started right from scratch. I started Googling stuff, and I ended up on this page that NYC Department of Education has where they report guidance counselor and social worker numbers. I saw these files, all the latest numbers that were available at that point, and what I saw was something like that majority of like not majority, but like a lot of schools didn’t have full time social workers on staff. 

So I thought of that as something which was very stark, where it seemed like the money that comes into the education system here in New York City and how much of that was going to mental health services, especially in this specific time of need. So I basically downloaded all of the files. So this particular data set, they’ve been publishing this data set since 2015. That was the first time they published it, and I think there was some advocacy before that to make that happen. 

And I know I’ve downloaded that data so many times during the course of this reporting. And just like I started doing some basic analysis on that – how many schools did not have a social worker? And that’s how we also started calling those schools. And it kind of lags a bit, the publication of the data. 

So, yeah, I mean, the analysis itself wasn’t very sophisticated in the sense that we ran any algorithms or anything like that. It was just like basic numbers that we were just looking at – which schools did have a full time social worker, which school didn’t. And where it got a little bit sophisticated was when we combined the COVID data and this particular data and we started looking at neighborhoods which were affected by COVID more than others and what was the situation like in schools within those neighborhoods. 

Alvarez: Another important part of investigation, obviously, was you spoke to several immigrant families about the deaths of their loved ones. How did you find and get in contact with those families? 

Liz Donovan: Yeah, I can answer this. I did a lot of the conversations with the families. They came in through different ways. One of the families had previously been featured in The City. The father was an MTA worker. Another came to us 00 the student that we start the story off with, Yarely – that family came to us from the little girl’s teacher who wrote into Missing Them. The other family, Charlene, who is now in New Jersey, wrote in as well. Most of them, I think, came in through forms. Another family, the Egyptian family we spoke with, we got their name from a funeral home. Obviously, the home had contacted the family first to see if they’d be willing to talk with journalists. And then we reached out to them. 

Khan: I just want to add to like, one little bit, is that Ronnie and like the Fletcher family, I, when I reached out to them, I didn’t know that they had already been featured in any previous The City article. I contacted her for the very first time through a union contact. So her husband, then part of the Transport Workers Union, and Iwe did actually reach out to a lot of unions and that was one lead that resulted in multiple conversations and actually like finally being in the story. 

Alvarez: And in terms of actual conversations, how did you approach talking to the families about such a sensitive subject? Were there any particular challenges of interviewing children who had lost parents or caregivers? 

Donovan: I mean, it was the hardest reporting I’ve ever done. It took a lot of time, and we were fortunate with this project that we had a lot of time. I joined it later in the process. So I think Fazil worked on this ultimately about a year and a half, and I worked on it for about a year. 

One of the families, for instance, I first spoke with, I think in February of last year and then couldn’t get in touch with them again. I spoke with the father and the daughter who’s now 17, Rana, and I didn’t get in touch with them again for another eight months or so, and they ended up being an excellent resource for this story. I was really grateful that we had that time to keep circling back with them. 

As far as the kids, yeah, we did a podcast with the Fletcher family and the kids were just so amazing. They were really open and articulate and the first time I met with that family, they really barely spoke a word. So again, that relationship built over time, really worked to our advantage and gave the kids the opportunity to feel comfortable and to open up. We were really grateful that we were able to just let that kind of relationship marinate over the year that I was working on the project anyway. 

Alvarez: As both of you have mentioned, the investigation took place over a long period of time. Fazil, you talked about this a bit at the beginning, but how did the scope of the investigation change over that time? Did your understanding of the New York Department of Education’s response to the pandemic change? 

Khan: It did to a great degree. I think by the time we were nearing the end – I think there was one point somewhere in the investigation where I brought in more recent data. Because the duration was so long, we worked on this story for more than almost more than a year, actually, and things were happening at certain points during the reporting. Like, a bill being introduced in the legislature about having ACS [Administration for Children’s Services] track such kids and what’s happening to them. And then you’d have announcements here and there about the mental health support being provided, budget cuts happening or not. And then we had these transcripts from the Committee on Education where we could actually like create a chronological kind of a map where we could see when people were talking about what sort of things. 

So, yeah, I mean, my understanding was enhanced to a great degree about how the situation is like and how the system works. It’s difficult to penetrate at times when you want to like really investigate things, really want to talk to people. We had a really hard time like reaching people from the DOE and talking to them, be it teachers or be itpeople in official capacity. 

But yeah, we had to find ways to actually get something that we wanted, something that that would have that would, one, really support the story, and also elements which were missing from the story. Some things that we could have only gotten from the D.O.D. and nowhere else. So, yeah, and many new characters also emerged through the reporting, like we would come across look at this partner organization also is also working with the department. This particular expert is working with the department as well. So yeah, I mean throughout the duration, things were moving all the time and we tried to cover as much ground as possible. 

Donovan: I think the thing too, is that we use a lot of really old school boot leather reporting tactics. We went to after school pickups and talked with parents at schools where we knew we had talked with parents. We actually printed out fliers or surveys, rather, on paper and gave them to schools in the areas, the neighborhoods that we were looking at and asked them to fill it out, just asking questions about how many social workers they had and what type of guidance they got from central D.O.E. about identifying and providing resources for children who lost parents. 

We just tried to talk with people in person. One of the parents that we spoke with, again, the Ecuadorian family that we lead the story with, the phone number we were given for her didn’t work so we just went to her house and knocked on her door and interviewed her and the children there. So it was a lot of in-person reporting that we did, which is why it was so great that it was a New York City story that we were able to do that. 

Khan: And just just to add to that, we had a really hard time finding families in the beginning. And I actually did distribute fliers in New York City neighborhoods where we knew that there were many more deaths than compared to other neighborhoods in the city. So we were just like giving these fliers to community organizations, local groups or churches, or any religious institution in that neighborhood. And I think it was soon after we sent out this survey and we tried other approaches and when Liz joined is when we started hearing back from families, and that’s when we started kind of building out the narrative. 

Alvarez: You briefly mentioned this before, but, what were your interactions with the New York Department of Education like? How was it trying to get information from like, officials or trying to speak to them? 

Donovan: It was very difficult. We were in contact with the communications office at the D.O.E. We’d send questions, we’d get responses, but they wouldn’t answer all of our questions. We’d try to follow up. Still wouldn’t get the answer. They wouldn’t let us communicate with, for instance, the current chancellor or with a principal in one case who we name in the story, we wanted to speak with. They wouldn’t let us talk with him. 

They told us that he declined the interview out of respect for the families, and we tried to convince them to let him speak with us, but that didn’t happen. So it was really challenging. I wouldn’t have said they were the most forthcoming agency. Bill de Blasio was very willing to talk. He was great, as was the former chancellor, Dr. Porter. I called both of their cell phones and they spoke with me. I didn’t do that through DOE though. 

Khan: I think we had more success with ex-employees and ex-officials than we did with current employees and current officials. When we reached out to schools, there was a recurring themse where we would either reach out directly to the principal or the social worker, guidance counselor or vice principal at that school, and we’d get a response, which was something like we had to come through the DOE official channel, and only then they talk to us. And the DOE official channel wasn’t – I personally didn’t have much interaction on a phone or like in-person interaction with current officials or spokespeople. And we didn’t want this, but a lot of the responses that we got were on an email and a written response from them. And as much as we tried to actually have them talk to us. And if I’m not wrong, like Liz got like a ten minute call with them that that was all that we got. 

Donovan: Yeah, there is a lot of fear, I would say, among DOE employees. And that goes for people within former and current people in the agency itself and working at the schools. I even had one teacher literally run away from me. Well, I tried to ask him questions – it was difficult. And then, as Fazil mentioned, we got I think it was a 12 minute call I got with somebody at the EOC who could only answer questions on one specific part of my of all the questions that we had, she could only answer some of them. So it was somewhat helpful, but not everything that we were asking for. 

Alvarez:  My last question is: what were some of the challenges of working on a project with so many different, like reporters and editors? 

Khan: I took a count of people who are mentioned and at the bottom of the story, like credited for working with us and helping like making the story what it ended up to be. And yeah, there are challenges when one, you’re trying to coordinate amongst so many people – and not all of them were there at the same time, just to be sure. There were people who were there probably just during the initial reporting of the story. They were people who were part of the team when we were still trying to find the families. And then there are people who were there, like towards the end of us, like actually drafting it and finally publishing the story. So coordination issues were there in the sense that. It. It. It kind of became difficult. 

Also, like we were starting new jobs towards the end of the story, towards the end of our reporting process. So it kind of became like, what strand are we taking and what particular thing we focusing on improving within the story when we had a draft of it already, and where did we need someone’s help because we couldn’t devote as much time because we were stretched thin in terms of our availability because we were starting these new jobs. 

But then with many people come many perspectives and opinions. So just just trying to figure it out what’s the best approach to telling this story. And we know that everyone wanted the best thing in the end. And just like accommodating as many opinions as we could. Just just trying to get the best language possible for what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it. Just getting just being factually correct where you help us a lot as well. 

So yeah, it was a challenge. It was a great learning experience as well. And I think overall it did really help us in improving the story and bringing it to a point where we were confident and we were bringing it to a point where we were trying to bring together a lot of things that were happening around this issue and try to cover as much as we could and try to tell it in as coherent a way as possible. 

Donovan: Yeah. And I think I’ll just add on that we had three really brilliant editors to work with on this, which was a gift. Two of them I had worked with previously. The story was done through Columbia’s Global Migration project, it’s another reason why we focused on immigrant families. And I had done that fellowship previously and came back on to help Fazil finish the story. But we had the editor from that, the editor in chief from Type, Cassi, and then the editor from the City, Anjali, who were just incredible. And they all have a different style and a different perspective and we kind of got to be able to blend all of those into one story. So it was just a matter of all of us putting our heads together and figuring out how all those styles worked seamlessly in an article, which I think we did by the end. 

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