Coalition Testifies on Homeless Students

On Friday, April 16th, the Coalition for the Homeless and The Legal Aid Society submitted testimony to the New York City Council’s Committees on Education and General Welfare regarding youth sleeping in shelters and their access to education and related services.

Homeless students have long faced daunting challenges as they struggle to get to school and keep up with their stably housed classmates, and the pandemic has exacerbated these disadvantages. When schools went remote at the onset of the pandemic last spring, thousands of homeless students were unable to connect to the virtual classroom because of inadequate or nonexistent internet connectivity in their shelters. Even after the City distributed cellular-enabled iPads to many students, poor connectivity often resulted in frustration and repeated absences. The Coalition and our partners spent months advocating on behalf of these vulnerable students, but problems persisted.

On November 24, 2020, The Legal Aid Society and Milbank LLP – representing the Coalition and certain individual shelter residents and their children – filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against the de Blasio Administration for its failure to provide students who reside in City shelters access to reliable internet service so they can attend school remotely. On April 6, 2021, the parties announced a settlement in the E.G. v. The City of New York litigation. The settlement requires the City to install wireless internet in over 200 shelters serving more than 11,000 school-age children across the city, so that these children can participate in remote education during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

As the testimony Legal Aid and the Coalition submitted to the Council explained:

The lawsuit alleged that the lack of reliable internet access for students living in shelters denied a core tenet of educational opportunity for these young people. Not only is every student in the city entitled to equal access to a free public education until the age of 21, but Federal law also guarantees “homeless youth and children of homeless individuals equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths” (42 U.S.C. § 11431). During this pandemic, a reliable internet connection is the most fundamental resource needed to access education. In fact, as school was conducted remotely, it was as essential as transportation, which is a subject of the hearing today.

After the Court ordered the parties to exchange discovery in anticipation of a limited evidentiary hearing on Plaintiffs’ preliminary injunction motion, the parties exchanged hundreds of documents and took depositions of various parties and experts, ultimately leading to a settlement agreement. As of April 1, 2021, the City has installed WiFi in approximately 75 percent of family shelters and, per the settlement, will complete all required installation no later than August 31, 2021. The City is obligated to ensure that, in the interim, all students with cellular-enabled iPads have reliable access to the internet, which may include replacing faulty equipment or installing interim measures. Shelter providers must post and provide information to residents and students about how to report technical issues as they arise and must support the families as they continue to navigate remote learning. Perhaps most importantly, WiFi will remain installed in the shelters beyond the terms of the settlement’s enforcement, enabling families to benefit from this essential service beyond the pandemic.

Deborah Diamant, the Coalition’s Director of Government Relations and Legal Affairs, applauded the settlement:

“We are grateful to The Legal Aid Society, Milbank LLP, and our dedicated staff for helping to bring this important litigation to a successful settlement. We first objected to the City’s failure to ensure that homeless students have the same educational access as their permanently housed peers nearly a year ago as the lack of internet access kept so many children in shelters from participating in online learning. Now, an accelerated timeline for WiFi installation in family shelters will help thousands of children gain internet access more quickly. We will continue to fight for their right to learn and succeed academically.”

The full testimony, which also highlights issues related to transportation for homeless students and the arduous eligibility process for families entering the shelter system, can be read here.