Providing reliable internet access to the 111,000 children in homeless shelters and unstable housing in New York City has been one of the most stubborn obstacles to getting online schooling right, and for many students there’s no relief in sight. The city belatedly started putting Wi-Fi in 200 family shelters in November and says it won’t finish until the end of summer, after a second pandemic school year has come and gone.
In November, when a lawsuit demanded that the city speed up and complete the Wi-Fi project by early January, the city protested that it was being asked to “perform the impossible,” listing 14 bureaucratic hurdles to be cleared at each shelter before installation could begin.
But operators who collectively run more than a dozen of the city’s 200 family shelters have proved it is not impossible at all.
Recognizing the urgency of the situation, they took it upon themselves to get their buildings wired months ago and got it done within weeks — most for a fraction of what the city is paying the cable giants Spectrum and Optimum to do the job over nearly a year.
The city is installing cable and a Wi-Fi router in every shelter apartment, while most shelters that did it themselves had contractors install access points in hallways that they say provide fine service.
“Given the fiscal crisis the city finds itself in, this is just silly,” Catherine Trapani, the executive director of Homeless Services United, a coalition of shelter operators, said this month. “There’s a cheaper, faster way — what is the reason you wouldn’t try to do it?”
Robin Levine, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, said in a statement that installing a Wi-Fi setup in each apartment was “the only way to ensure families will have a permanent, reliable way to access the internet.”
The city’s solution “accounts for long-term support needs” and is over all “better, stronger and cheaper,” Ms. Levine wrote.
The city declined to say how many students in homeless shelters still lack reliable internet but has said in court filings that a survey starting in late October found nearly 3,000 shelter families with school-age children reported problems with city-issued iPads.
As frustrating and cumbersome as remote schooling has been for students and families all over, the process of getting New York’s poorest students connected has been a case study in complication. When Mayor Bill de Blasio shut down schools on March 15, his Department of Education began distributing internet-equipped iPads with unlimited T-Mobile data plans to every child who needed one. But inside many shelters, T-Mobile’s signal was weak or nonexistent.