Editor’s Note: Eileen Torres is executive director of BronxWorks, a nonprofit organization serving 60,000 Bronx residents each year. Follow the organization on social media at @bronxworks. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Learning remotely during a pandemic has been difficult for most students, but for children and families living in homeless shelters, the task has felt impossible at times. As the executive director of social services non-profit BronxWorks, my heart sank when schools closed in March. One aspect of our robust social service work is managing three family shelters, and New York City shelters are not equipped with WiFi – how could students possibly attend school remotely without a reliable internet connection?
My team knows firsthand that the disruptions and barriers associated with homelessness make it hard for the 385 school-aged children living in our shelters to attend and succeed in school, even during the best of times.
According to a 2016 report from the city’s Independent Budget Office, almost two-thirds of students living in shelters were “chronically absent” or “severely chronically absent” – defined as missing 10% of school days or more – in 2013-2014. Research shows that students who experience homelessness have lower test scores and are more likely to repeat a grade or drop out, which can have implications for wellbeing into adulthood. And students without internet already faced hurdles before classes were held online. According to the Federal Communications Commission, approximately 70% of teachers assign homework requiring access to broadband and, according to a 2020 analysis by the Pew Research Center, about 60% of students use the web at home to complete their work, submit assignments, and connect with teachers – putting those without access at a great disadvantage.
Over the past three years, we have managed an innovative program to improve school attendance among our shelter residents. This is a national problem, but until we address the larger problem of family homelessness, efforts to improve educational outcomes must happen on a local level, with individualized interventions for families. Our Attendance Matters initiative, a partnership with non-profit Gateway Housing, coordinates efforts between BronxWorks staff and schools, tracking attendance daily for individual students and addressing barriers when necessary. Before the pandemic, the problems were often simple, if not devastating – like a mother who could not afford to pay to wash her children’s clothing. The pandemic and the resulting school shutdown led to a whole new, monumental challenge.
When New York City schools shuttered on March 16 and the city’s 1.1 million public school students were instructed to go online, we immediately realized that the lack of WiFi access in our shelters would make learning impossible for most students. Despite the Department of Education handing out hundreds of thousands of data-enabled devices to students, our children still struggled, including 8-year-old Talique.
Talique never missed class in first or second grade – in fact, he was awarded “best attendance” by his school two years in a row. Despite receiving a data-enabled iPad, there was often little to no cell service in the shelter where he lives. Shelter buildings are often older, large brick buildings that don’t get good cell reception indoors. Talique regularly struggled to connect to his virtual classes and missed lessons for the first time, which his mother, Tanielle, described as “devastating.”
The city’s task of connecting all family shelters to WiFi was a massive undertaking. We could see that the work to establish connectivity would be slow, but our families had no time to waste – students like Talique were already falling behind.
The week that school closed in March, we started exploring bringing WiFi to the building, contacting internet providers. But over the next few weeks, it became clear that wiring the building with WiFi the traditional way would take too long and cost too much. In April, families were growing frustrated, and we knew we had to do something to expedite the process.
Our shelter team put their heads together to brainstorm alternative solutions. We reached out to the security firm that had recently installed closed-circuit televisions in our shelters. The firm was able to piggyback on the existing network to install one hotspot for every three apartments, and within a week, one of our shelters was wired for WiFi, with all three connected by mid-May. Not only is the internet fast, it was inexpensive to install and even cheaper to maintain. Thanks to generous donors, we raised the funding to completely cover the costs.
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Talique and his mom were one of many families who felt relief to have reliable internet. While he still misses his friends and gym class, he is currently getting good grades and doing well with remote learning.
Covid-19 is a crisis beyond any we’ve experienced before, but when you run a nonprofit that serves 60,000 people in one of the country’s poorest congressional districts, you have to be able to quickly, efficiently and affordably respond to emerging problems. City contracts do not cover the full costs of non-profit programs, so organizations like BronxWorks often have to figure out how to stretch and raise dollars and develop innovative solutions in order to support individuals and families.
Creatively connecting our families in shelter to WiFi is just one example of our relentless efforts to support Bronx families. But we cannot do it alone. We need meaningful investment in nonprofits like BronxWorks from the government, corporations, foundations and individuals to ensure the most vulnerable people in our communities can survive – and thrive – during the pandemic and beyond.