The livelihood of children, and parents, depends on it
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s announcement that schools will open for elementary students came as welcome news for many homeless families, as the switch to remote and blended learning has been fraught with uncertainty and unfulfilled promises. Many waited months to get city-issued iPads for remote learning.
But nearly 11 months after the first shelter in place order, the city has neglected to provide internet access to more than 25,000 homeless public school students, according to a lawsuit filed last year.
The consequences of the city’s failure to address the urgent need for WiFi in shelters extend beyond children falling behind in school. On top of being homeless during a global pandemic, families living in shelters are now at increased risk of being investigated for educational neglect. About a fourth of families residing in shelters already have open cases with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). At particular risk are families of color, who are disproportionately investigated for child maltreatment. Approximately 90% of shelter residents identify as Black or Latinx; Black and brown children make up over 85% of New York City students experiencing homelessness.
I am a social worker supporting parents with family court cases and have seen many families struggle with the senseless and harmful regulations imposed by the shelter system. Family shelters do not typically provide internet to residents but also do not allow residents to install WiFi in their units. They also enforce curfews and limits on how long a family can be absent from the shelter. They prohibit residents from relying on each other for childcare, or non-residents to enter the shelter to babysit or help with cleaning or household chores.
These rules restrict access to family and community support and heighten the stress and isolation experienced by homeless families trying to parent during the worst health crisis in recent history.
One parent I work with, Angela, opted her daughter into full remote learning this fall because she has pre-existing health conditions. Angela and her children live in a shelter, which occupies part of a hotel near LaGuardia Airport. The hotel room she shares with her two children does not have a kitchen. In the common area, families line up to use two microwaves while trying to socially distance. Angela’s daughter did receive an iPad from the city, and has tried using the WiFi available to guests of the hotel, but the signal was too weak to get into her virtual classroom or upload her assignments.
Angela lives in a shelter because a court order required her to. She was in the process of moving her family upstate when ACS filed a case against her in family court, alleging that she neglected her children. The judge ordered Angela to enter a shelter, and remain in the city until she found permanent housing. Then, after forcing Angela and her children to live through over a year of supervision and court-ordered services, ACS agreed to withdraw its case against her.
Ironically, the decisions the judge made for Angela and her family could cause ACS to re-enter their lives. If Angela can’t find a way to log her daughter’s attendance, the school will likely make a report to ACS. Legislation preventing educational neglect cases from being prosecuted during the pandemic has been introduced but has not passed, and schools continue to call in allegations solely because a child has not been able to show up for virtual class.
If a case is called in, there will be nothing ACS can do to help Angela’s daughter get online. Families who are at risk of having their children removed by ACS are also at risk of losing their family shelter placements. Parents like Angela must contend with an impossible catch-22: follow the shelter rules and wait until a permanent housing option is available or risk the upheaval that might follow an ACS investigation stemming from a report of educational neglect.
Basic internet access is a necessity that should already be available to families living in shelters. Parents need to be able to search for housing and apply to job or education programs online. Children need WiFi to do homework. Remote learning has only made internet access even more urgent for homeless New Yorkers.
Mayor De Blasio has promised to provide WiFi to every family shelter by Summer 2021, but short-term fixes must be found immediately. If not, homeless families will continue to be investigated, and prosecuted, for simply not having resources the city has declined to provide for months.