The coronavirus pandemic has illuminated and exacerbated many underlying inequities across racial and class lines. The swift transition to remote learning for New York City students this spring is one galling example of the impact of the digital divide, as thousands of students in shelters have struggled to sign on and access the equal education to which they are legally entitled. Many shelters do not have WiFi accessible to residents, and some are even in cellular dead zones that render City-issued iPads useless.
Homeless students already face challenges keeping up with their stably housed classmates. The fact that many of them have been unable to fully participate in school for several months will undoubtedly place them at a further academic disadvantage.
Throughout the pandemic, the Coalition for the Homeless and other groups, including Advocates for Children of New York, have urged the City to more effectively tackle remote learning obstacles for homeless students, sending several letters to government officials (a few examples are here, here, and here). While the sudden switch to remote learning in March was bound to be chaotic, it is inexcusable that homeless students continue to encounter barriers to remote learning a full seven months into the public health crisis.
Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier highlighted the impact of these persistent access issues for homeless students in a statement this week:
“For months, homeless students at shelters across the city have been denied internet access through a lack of WiFi or inadequate cellular service, creating unnecessary obstacles to their ability to participate in remote schooling. The City’s failure to create and implement a plan to provide reliable internet access further exacerbates the disparities that have already put homeless children at an educational disadvantage. The lack of internet service for students who so desperately need it is a solvable problem and is a matter of social justice. It is incomprehensible why the City is not giving students in shelters the opportunity to have equal access to free public education.”
Faced with these continued roadblocks, on October 8th, Milbank and The Legal Aid Society sent a letter on our behalf to the Department of Education and Department of Homeless Services (DHS) regarding the lack of internet access for school-age children in DHS shelters. Unfortunately, the City’s response to that letter has so far been piecemeal, and many students continue to report problems accessing the internet for school.
Noah Goldberg and Michael Elsen-Rooney of the Daily News wrote about the ongoing challenges:
Advocates are calling for a citywide audit to measure the scope of the internet outage.
“We…have reason to believe the problem is widespread,” said Susan J. Horwitz, the supervising attorney for the Education Law Project at the Legal Aid Society. “Without a commitment and specific plan for the city to audit the system and adopt system-wide solutions, we will be forced to take legal action and ask a court to compel City Hall to do so.”
Horwitz added that the lack of reliable internet connection is particularly troubling for kids already struggling with remote learning and the coronavirus crisis.
“The city has a moral and legal obligation to ensure that these families have dependable access to broadband-based internet access, especially those with children who are attending school remotely,” she noted.
Lack of wireless internet at city shelters has been an ongoing problem, but the problem has intensified with the demands of online classes, which require students to have strong, reliable connections for video teaching and assignments.
Nearly every city public school student is still participating in some virtual learning this fall — with half the city’s population home for full-time remote learning and the other half switching between in-person and online classes.
One of the students still struggling to get online is Aaron Morris, a 15-year-old freshman at the High School of Youth and Community Development in Flatbush, Brooklyn who opted for all-remote learning this fall because his dad has an underlying health condition.
Aaron, who lives in the Albermarle Residence in Flatbush, said the spotty cellular service in the building often causes him to lose his connection right in the middle of a video chat with his teacher and classmates.
“Sometimes it breaks down in the middle of class and we try to get back in and it happens all over again,” Aaron told The News on Monday. “It is making me fall behind a little bit because I’m trying to do my classwork and out of nowhere the internet is not working, so I can’t hear what the teachers are trying to say.”
“It really makes me sad because I like being in school and interacting with the other people in the class,” he added.