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NYC Sued for Failing to Provide Reliable Internet Access to Students at Shelters During Pandemic

A laptop leaning up against a set of books.

Bookshelves and laptops are placed on the library desk.E-learning class and e-book digital technology

On Tuesday in the Southern District of New York, the non-profit organization Coalition for the Homeless and several individual shelter residents and their children filed a class-action complaint against the City of New York and its Departments of Education, Social Services, Homeless Services, Information Technology and Telecommunications, the Human Resources Administration, and individuals associated with those agencies. The suit arose from the defendants’ purported failure to provide reliable internet access at homeless shelters, thus hindering children at these shelters from being able to access and attend their virtual classroom as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in violation of their legal right to an education and various federal and state laws.

This class-action, according to the complaint, “seeks to vindicate the rights of homeless children residing in New York City shelters to receive a sound basic education during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The plaintiffs stated that the pandemic has “transformed the school experience for New York City’s children.” In particular, instead of physically going to school every day, the pandemic “has meant that every student is required to enter a ‘virtual classroom’ by logging onto a tablet, computer, or other electronic device anywhere from one to five days per week. Once connected by video conference, children see their teachers and classmates. Class is called to order and attendance is taken. Teachers jump into their lesson plans. Students raise their hands to answer questions or pose questions of their own. Classwork and homework are completed electronically and submitted through online platforms.”

However, the children of the individual plaintiffs, as well as other children in New York City homeless shelters have not had this experience because, according to the complaint, “[t]hey lack access to the kind of reliable internet that would enable them to participate meaningfully in school – indeed, to enter school at all – because the City has failed to provide it.”

The plaintiffs proffered that New York City’s failure was more understandable in the spring at the start of the pandemic because the city was unprepared for the abrupt school closings in March, which forced the public school system and the “[m]ore than one million students in the City’s public schools, including the estimated 114,000 homeless students who attend those schools…to continue their education remotely.” Moreover, the plaintiffs claimed that New York City “made some initial efforts to provide children residing in shelters with technology to facilitate their attendance in the virtual classroom,” such as providing a tablet device on a cellular network plan.

After a few months, the plaintiffs asserted “it has been clear that the City’s initial efforts have fallen short” because there was still “no reliable internet service for residents at numerous shelters throughout the City.” As a result, the plaintiffs alleged that their children have often been unable to connect to their online classroom and participate in school because they lack the necessary effective and reliable internet access. Therefore, the plaintiffs contended that the City’s continued failure to provide the plaintiffs and putative class “with reliable internet access – eight months into the pandemic – violates the law and requires legal redress.”

With the recent rise of COVID-19 cases in New York City, the public school system has moved to online learning five days a week indefinitely beginning Nov. 19. The plaintiffs pointed to New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s claim that reliable internet access is needed at all shelters and that the City would begin this installation, but, the plaintiffs contended that New York City officials have not given a clear deadline for when this would be complete. Instead, the complaint said officials opted for a vague deadline “that WiFi installation would be complete at some shelters ‘this winter,’ and at the vast majority of the City’s other shelters in the summer of 2021 – that is, after the current school year is over.”

“Even in the buildings that are on the priority list we have not heard that they’re actually being addressed quickly,” Susan Horwitz, Supervising Attorney of the Education Law Project at The Legal Aid Society, who is also representing the plaintiffs, said.

According to the complaint, the New York Constitution “guarantees a ‘sound basic education’ for each and every child living in the state” and state law requires impoverished children receive the necessary tools for school attendance. Moreover, the federal McKinney-Vento Act, provides additional protections by seeking to remove “the barriers to education that arise when a child suffers from homelessness and to ensure that homeless children can enroll in, attend, and succeed in school.” Additionally, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection of the laws. As a result, the plaintiffs contended that the City’s failure to provide reliable internet services in New York City shelters violates these legal obligations.

The causes of action are violations of the New York Constitution, violations of New York State Education Law, violations of the McKinney-Vento Act, violations of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The plaintiffs have sought an expedited redress for New York City’s ongoing violations of its legally required obligations to provide basic educational access to children residing in homeless shelters. In particular, the plaintiffs have sought a preliminary injunction requiring the defendants to provide reliable internet access in all shelters with school-aged children in New York City by January 4, 2021, which is the first day of school after winter break; for the defendants to submit a comprehensive plan to the court for how they will install and maintain this internet access in the shelters; to certify the class; declaratory judgment; an award for damages; an award for costs and fees; and other relief.

The plaintiffs are represented by The Legal Aid Society and Milbank LLP.

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