As New York City’s schoolchildren watched the coronavirus’s brutal spring rampage evolve into months of virtual learning, nearly 1 in 10 did so without having a stable place to call home. For the fifth year running, more than 100,000 New York City public school students were homeless, according to state education data published by Advocates for Children of New York, a nonprofit agency that provides advocacy and legal representation.
The abrupt shift to remote learning brought a battery of challenges for the neediest students. In the spring, some waited weeks or months to receive a tablet from their school, and even when they did, they often had little interaction with their teachers and classmates. Others couldn’t get cellular reception or connect to the internet in their shelter; it wasn’t until late October that the city pledged to install internet in shelters. Just a few weeks later, rising citywide positivity rates for COVID-19 led Mayor Bill DeBlasio to shutter all public schools for a second time.
Now, as elementary schools prepare to re-open for students who chose in-person learning, advocates are calling for the city to devote extra resources to its most vulnerable students.
“The vast scale of student homelessness in New York City demands urgent attention,” said Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children, in a news release. “If these children comprised their own city, it would be larger than Albany, and their numbers may skyrocket even further after the state eviction moratorium is lifted, the city must act now to put more support in place for students who are homeless.”
The living situations of homeless families vary widely, state data show. Of the 111,606 homeless students across the city, about two-thirds were “doubled up,” crammed into a temporary arrangement with another family, while 30% were in a shelter. More than 5,000 students were living primarily in a car, trailer, park or abandoned building. The Bronx had both the highest raw number of homeless students and the highest rate of homelessness, at about 1 in every 6 students.
The impact of the double crisis on homeless students is clear. In the spring, they had the lowest rate of participation in virtual learning of any student subgroup, 13% below the citywide average, the data show. Such disruption has almost certainly widened the chasm already apparent between students with stable homes and those without, of whom 85% are Black or Latino, Advocates for Children said. Less than one-third of homeless students in grades three through eight can read proficiently, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education — some 20% fewer than their classmates with stable housing.
One solution is for the city to expedite the installation of wireless internet in family shelters and the distribution of tablets to those in need, advocates say. They are also calling for the city Department of Education to hire additional staff to support homeless students; currently, 20 positions are unfilled due to hiring freezes and budget cuts.
While there is heated debate over whether schools can safely offer in-person instruction, even groups who oppose large-scale reopening have said that homeless students should be among the first to have the option to return to classrooms, and Advocates for Children has called for all homeless students to be able to learn in-person.
However, the mayor has said that any students who did not opt in to hybrid learning by mid-November would not have another opportunity to do so this school year, with no stated exceptions.
Absent an extension of the state’s eviction moratorium past the end of the year, those figures could soon rise — further taxing schools’ ability to keep up with their students’ needs.
“Learning from home is much harder,” Sweet said, “when you don’t have a permanent home.”