Coronavirus leaves NYC's homeless students struggling to connect to virtual classrooms

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To combat the spread of COVID-19, school districts across the nation have closed, leaving many students to depend on e-learning -- a struggle especially for the students who are homeless.

New York City's public schools, part of the country’s largest school district, shut their doors March 15 by order of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Department of Education began its contingency plans so students could keep up with their curricula. It provided students computer tablets to continue their course work and to connect to virtual classrooms online.

Christine Quinn, a one-time campaign rival of de Blasio and a former City Council speaker, is now the CEO and president of WIN (Women in Need), the largest provider of shelter and permanent supportive housing for families in New York City. She questioned whether the city was fulfilling the needs of priority students – homeless children living in shelters or NYC Housing Authority buildings – as promised. She said many students could be left in the technological dark.

“In New York City, the shelters do not have Wi-Fi. I'll repeat, they don't have Wi-Fi. So we need to get devices for our students that have cellular packages on them, otherwise, they are unusable,” Quinn told Fox News last Tuesday.

NYC Public Schools tweeted on March 18: “We’ll use the contact info you provide to get in touch with you to discuss when/where you can pick up a device. Schools will continue to lend existing technology to students. @Apple & @TMobile are working w/us to deliver up to 300K Internet-connected devices in the coming weeks.

Handing out Internet-enabled iPads to students enrolled in public schools seems reasonable when a student has a home wired with the Internet.

But, Quinn said the plan was riddled with disadvantages for homeless children living in shelters not offering Internet access.

“Some of our children were told by their individual [public or charter] schools to go pick up laptops but none of them came with a cellular plan. So again, the devices we have are useless. We’re two and a half days into virtual learning and we have zero,” she said during last week's interview.

NYC students who are homeless, have been finding it difficult to log into virtual classrooms due to a lack of WiFi at the city's shelters.

NYC students who are homeless, have been finding it difficult to log into virtual classrooms due to a lack of WiFi at the city's shelters.

About 1,400 of WIN’s 1,600 school-aged children still needed learning tools. Some of WIN’s kids received devices, but the devices didn’t include cellular data, which is useless for a child living in an NYC shelter.

By the end of last week, one into e-learning for public schools, one of WIN’s shelter received delivery of iPads with cellular data, but many students were still stuck with a useable device, leaving hundreds of students a week behind schoolwork compared to their peers, WIN reported.

As of week two of e-learning for public school, all WIN sites providing shelter to students were supplied with iPads enabled with cellular data, which gave many students access online.


“When we made the difficult decision to move to remote learning, we immediately got to work on a device-distribution plan that put students in temporary housing at the top of the list, and beginning last week, we’ve been distributing LTE-enabled iPads to students in shelters,” said Miranda Barbot, press secretary for the New York City Department of Education. “Schools have also distributed approximately 175,000 school-based laptops, tablets and Chromebooks to students in need.”

WIN sites providing shelter to students were supplied with iPads enabled with cellular data.

WIN sites providing shelter to students were supplied with iPads enabled with cellular data. (WIN​​​​​​)

As of this past Monday, Barbot said, all 12,000 public school students in DHS shelters should have received an LTE-enabled iPad.

To close the digital divide amongst students, the Department of Education is expanding device distribution to students in “temporary housing and foster care students in charter schools [and] charter school students with disabilities to whom we are providing services, and students enrolled in special education state-approved non-public programs,” said Barbot.

She said, “We encourage all families in need of devices to complete the Remote Learning Device Survey available on our website at”

The number of homeless students enrolled in public school districts in the U.S. continues to rise. State educational agencies reported an estimated 1,508,265 homeless students in grades pre-K through 12 and undergrad during the 2017-18 school year across the country. The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) reported  153,209 homeless students enrolled in public schools in the state of New York.

Although dozens of school officials and teachers were left scrambling in an unforeseeable situation, as schools closed nationwide this past week, Christina Dukes, deputy director of partnerships and policy at NCHE, says schools are diligently working to create ways to extend the many resources provided by public schools to students online.

“We’re hearing a lot from state coordinators and locals about the types of struggles or challenges that homeless students and their families are facing,” said Dukes. “We are seeing things like school-based health care services pivot to a telehealth model or inquiring about the possibility of school counselors proving virtual counseling.”


About the recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed by the Senate Wednesday night, Dukes says she’s starting to see a larger scale of the federal response, adding the stimulus bill allows for “more flexible usages of funding” towards school meal programs, social services and emergency assistance for those in need, low-income families, in addition to people at risk or experiencing homelessness.

“The disruption to the entirety of the U.S. public education system,” caused by the COVID-19 outbreak across the country, put schools “in a very unprecedented situation that I think is very fluid and evolving,” said Dukes.