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New York mayor sued for failing to provide internet to students in shelters

A class action lawsuit on behalf of New York City’s houseless families was filed against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration on Tuesday for their failure to provide stable internet to city shelters. This suit comes within days of the city’s announcement that any in-person education would be suspended amidst a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Local advocacy group, Coalition for the Homeless, requested that the city install reliable Wi-Fi in shelters by the end of winter break so students staying there are able to begin the next semester of Zoom school. City officials had previously offered only a vague timeline for the internet installation. Their goal was to establish services in every shelter by next summer, but that would set many students back an entire semester.

The city has more than 250 shelters that serve families experiencing housing instability. Families make up three-quarters of the shelter population. According to the Department of Housing Services, most of these shelters do not have Wi-Fi.

The lawsuit asserts that the city has violated the state’s constitutional promise of a “sound basic education” by neglecting to provide the necessary tools that guarantee access to education. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Department of Education gave students iPads with data plans. But students still faced barriers to just logging on.

Many shelters are in “dead zones” where there is no Wi-Fi or cellular data that can support video conferencing platforms like Zoom that require significant bandwidth. Some families have internet access that is too weak to support multiple users simultaneously. And students and their families have dealt with fines and court appearances for truancy as a result.

The lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction requiring the city to install reliable internet services in all of the shelters before the end of winter break. They also request compensatory damages to cover the costs incurred by families who purchased additional internet to supplement the insufficient services in shelters.