At a homeless shelter in Manhattan, Christlie Jean-Baptiste struggles to get her children online for remote learning due to the shelter’s lack of Wi-Fi and cell service. While children across the city log on for remote learning, Jean-Baptiste often stands outside the shelter at a public Wi-Fi kiosk, trying desperately to get her 9-year-old daughter’s city-issued iPad to connect to the internet so she can participate in class. When bad weather strikes, Jean-Baptiste — who is enrolled in community college classes — and her children are usually forced to miss their classes entirely as the already-spotty internet connection is rendered nonexistent.
The New York City Department of Education has taken steps to support homeless students after classes were shifted online in March to slow the spread of COVID-19. In April, the DOE distributed 250,000 iPads with unlimited data to students to ensure they could attend online classes. Earlier this month, the DOE announced that homeless students would be given priority access to city-funded childcare so they can participate in remote learning while their parents return to work.
However, the approximately 11,000 homeless students enrolled in charter schools — including Jean-Baptiste’s children — are not eligible for the free childcare program, leaving parents of charter school students who need to work out of financial necessity with few options. Many charter schools in the city have been waiting for more state guidance to move from an all-remote model to a hybrid model. In the interim, families that cannot afford childcare have had to jeopardize their financial situations even more by staying home from work to care for their children during remote learning. The DOE’s narrow policy has left thousands of families with almost no options.
Internet connectivity issues also pose a huge roadblock for homeless students trying to participate in remote learning. While the DOE’s decision to supply homeless students with iPads is certainly a step in the right direction, the New York City Bar Association through City Bar Justice Center reported earlier this year that most city shelters not only lack Wi-Fi, but also have spotty cell service — making it difficult for residents to use hotspots or the unlimited data the city-issued iPads come with. Rather than address all aspects of the issue by providing homeless students with safe places where they can connect to the internet for remote learning, the DOE has opted to supply students with devices that can’t be used in many shelters.
Homeless students need and deserve spaces with reliable internet access in order to participate in remote learning, not just iPads that are often unusable in homeless shelters. This is undoubtedly a complex issue and I don’t doubt that the DOE is working hard to address students’ needs during the pandemic, but the bottom line is that it’s unacceptable and inhumane for thousands of students to fall behind in school due to issues beyond their control like internet accessibility and their families’ financial situations.
While the DOE can’t realistically equip all shelters with internet access, they do have several options for supporting students better than they are now. For one, the DOE can make Regional Enrichment Centers — community centers created in March to provide childcare to children of essential workers during the pandemic — accessible to homeless students. This would allow students living in shelters to have a reliable space to complete online classes. These centers safely provided childcare to thousands of children of essential workers for five months before shuttering last week, and they can be used again to provide childcare to homeless children during remote learning. The DOE can also expand the free childcare program already in place to include homeless students in charter schools so that children like Jean-Baptiste’s who are not enrolled in public schools do not have to rely on unreliable public internet to attend classes.
However the next few weeks unfold with remote learning, the DOE needs to do more to ensure that homeless children are able to participate in online classes regardless of their internet or living situation. Anything less showcases the DOE’s blatant disregard for the needs of the city’s most vulnerable students.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 21, 2020 e-print edition. Email Helen Wajda at [email protected]