Advocates sue city for failing to provide homeless students with access to remote learning

A Radisson Hotel near Wall Street is being used as a homeless shelter during the coronavirus outbreak, Oct. 12, 2020. (Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

Homeless families and legal advocates sued the city on Tuesday for failing to provide students living in homeless shelters with reliable internet access in order to attend remote classes. 

Since schools closed due to COVID-19 in the spring, students living in shelters have struggled to submit homework electronically and ask questions during classes hosted on Zoom during the days that spotty Wi-Fi service or malfunctioning Department of Education-issued iPads have allowed them to attend online classes at all. 

On average, about 20% of all students living in temporary housing have not had any daily interaction with remote learning, according to a new report from the child advocacy organization Citizens’ Committee for Children.

On the behalf of several homeless families, advocates raised concerns over insufficient internet access in shelters in a demand letter sent to the Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza last month.  Officials responded by changing the cellular carries of some student’s DOE-issued devices which still left some without service in shelters located in dead zones. 

Nearly seven months into the pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed the alarming disparity by announcing that the city would install Wi-Fi in city-run homeless shelters by next summer and would prioritize installation in 27 “priority” shelters this winter. About 245 sites have issues with Wi-Fi connectivity, according to the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Manhattan, takes issue with the city’s timeline and is requesting the court order the city to equip all shelters housing school children with Wi-Fi no later than January 4 of next year. Advocates charge that the city’s current vague timeline violates state law guaranteeing “a sound basic education” to every child as well as as a federal law ensuring homeless students receive access to the same public education provided to those not experiencing homeless. 

“Mayor de Blasio has had ample opportunities to rectify this crisis, and when he was provided the chance to issue a bold and sweeping plan, the result fell woefully short of what our clients need now,” said Susan Horwitz, Supervising Attorney of the Education Law Project at The Legal Aid Society. “We will not let our clients continue to struggle to access virtual learning because of the City’s negligence. “

 The lawsuit was filed days after city officials temporarily stopped all in-person classes at New York City public schools due to rising COVID-19 infections forcing 300,000 students into fully remote learning. Officials have still not decided when or how to reopen schools. 

City Hall did not respond immediately to a request for comment. 

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