As New York City's school system weathers another pandemic-induced closure, students and teachers have to rely on their computing devices and a strong, fast internet connection to attend class. For the 25,000 public school students who are homeless and living in the shelter system, reliable broadband is still scarce. On Tuesday, the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit against Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration, demanding adequate internet service for the city's homeless children.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Coalition for the Homeless and parents in temporary housing, and follows up on a request made by the Legal Aid Society last month to bring working WiFi service to shelters as students continue their studies remotely. In some cases, internet service is non-existent at shelters, depriving students of any form of instruction.
In late October, de Blasio assured New Yorkers that shelters across the entire system operated by the city's Department of Homeless Services would have adequate WiFi, but did not say when the city would complete the internet upgrades.
Specifically, the lawsuit demands that the de Blasio administration upgrade all shelters with adequate internet service by January 4th, 2021, award undefined compensatory damages to plaintiffs, and disclose just how the shelters will have broadband service installed or upgraded.
“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,” Susan Horwitz, supervising attorney of the Education Law Project from the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement. “We will not let our clients continue to struggle to access virtual learning because of the City’s negligence. We look forward to arguing this case in court and securing the relief that our clients deserve.”
Advocates for homeless families began addressing the issue of subpar WiFi in shelters in March when the city public school system shifted completely to remote learning. In some cases, upgrading a shelter's WiFi is remarkably straightforward. At a New York City Council education/health committee hearing last month, School Chancellor Richard Carranza testified that at least 10 shelters had their internet service updated just by changing out SIM cards. There are now 27 shelters that will be prioritized.
Legal Aid's lawsuit comes the same day that de Blasio told reporters that Verizon would finally begin making their infrastructure available to a wider swath of New Yorkers, including 500,000 families in public housing developments across the city. The announcement is part of a years-long goal to close the digital divide across the city that’s been moving at a snail’s pace. In 2008, Verizon promised to bring its FiOS service to “each and every borough, neighborhood, boulevard, avenue and street” in the city by 2014.
According to a 2019 study from the Comptroller's office, nearly 44% of New Yorkers who are living in poverty have no broadband connection.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Law Department said, “We understand the critical need of our undeserved students to have access to the internet. The City has a near and medium term plan to address this need which includes providing tablets to students at shelters and providing on-site tech assistance to get them connected quickly. We’re also working aggressively on a longer term plan.”