When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to move away in March 2020, Queens mother Marie struggled to help her seventh grader access classes using her phone or computer .
Because her daughter was so late, she was mandated to attend virtual summer school. Despite getting an internet-enabled iPad for summer school, the seventh-grader was unable to get Zoom or other apps to complete his homework. School officials repeatedly told the family that there was nothing they could do, she said.
In the end, her daughter had to repeat the seventh grade, said Marie, who requested to use her middle name for confidentiality reasons and is one of five families suing state and law officials. city for their inability to provide adequate internet access and work devices to city students, especially low-income children of color.
The lawsuit, filed in the New York State Supreme Court on Thursday, alleges senior state and city officials knew the extent of the digital divide as the pandemic progressed, but failed to managed to fix it properly. He claims the city violated state and city laws by failing to provide “solid basic education”, resulting in a disparate impact on low-income children and those of color, and calls for academic services to help affected students catch up.
Marie’s daughter continued to learn at home during the 2020-2021 school year with a faulty device and still struggled to access websites or some homework, Marie said. The school gave her a new device in October 2020, but it was not performing well, so Marie bought high-speed internet from Spectrum, hoping that would solve the problem. This is not the case, she said. According to the lawsuit, she still pays over $ 100 a month for this service, which she said she couldn’t afford.
Marie said her daughter had become depressed – she struggled with both school and not getting a grade as her friends walked along. At one point, Marie said she took her daughter to the emergency room because she tried to kill herself.
“You have no idea psychologically what this did to my child,” Marie said, crying. “As a mother, it broke me. I did all I could. I did everything I did to try to help her.
Many children have been left unconnected with their teachers and classes, according to the complaint, which names Governor Kathy Hochul, State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa, former Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Mayor Bill de Blasio. Chancellor of Schools Meisha Porter as accused.
When the families involved in the lawsuit, along with others, contacted their schools or the education department for help obtaining or paying for the Internet, they were instructed to contact Internet service providers. premises and ask for discounts, according to the complaint.
A basic internet plan costs an average of $ 40 per month in New York City, where about 45% of low-income families do not have a connection, and 100,000 city children live in homes without internet, according to an analysis by 2020 from the former controller Scott. Stiffener.
Even though this lawsuit comes nearly two years after the start of the pandemic, lawyers for legal services and Arnold & Porter said they only filed it after repeated attempts to contact the education department and find solutions for their clients. Additionally, they said, distance learning in one form or another is likely to persist, as children may have to go remote and self-quarantine if they test positive for COVID as the city experiences a another massive increase. (Classes are also remote on election day as well as snow days.)
“We hope the city acts quickly to resolve this issue and does not choose to litigate for years before these issues are resolved,” said Lucy S. McMillan, one of the lawyers behind the lawsuit. “The point is, these students have missed so much and they are falling behind. If it takes years to assess this and implement some sort of correction, it won’t be helpful for these students, who are getting older every year. Our hope is that the city will take care of it now. “
When the pandemic first closed schools, city officials had to quickly distribute hundreds of thousands of devices to students in the country’s largest school system. The city would then spend nearly $ 260 million on 511,000 internet-connected iPads that were purchased from the 2019-20 school year through the last school year, plus $ 4 million per month for data plans, according to one. Stringer audit.
But this colossal task took months to accomplish. Five weeks after schools closed, 19,000 children were still waiting for devices, the lawsuit noted.
Many families struggled to get online, sometimes excluded from discounts offered by internet companies aimed at helping schoolchildren. Even with internet-connected iPads in hand, families still faced spotty connectivity, couldn’t get their devices to work, and were unable to get timely help from their schools or service. education, according to the lawsuit. Internet access was a particular problem for children who lived in homeless shelters, where WiFi was not available and cell phone connection was poor.
By the time of the 2020-2021 school year, most children had still chosen to learn distance full-time, while others were entering their schools part-time. Even then, the lawsuit says, the city failed to ensure every family had assistive devices and Internet access before classes began.
In October 2020, a month after school started, 77,000 students still did not have a device, city officials said at the time. Reliable internet access was also always an issue, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also claims that the education ministry did not have a consistent system for repairing or replacing broken devices, especially for families who primarily spoke a language other than English.
Another complainant, a mother who speaks mainly Bengali, had repeatedly asked her then kindergarten school for help navigating distance learning, their city-issued iPad and connectivity. Internet, according to the lawsuit. However, she did not have a Bengali interpreter and all written information on how to navigate distance learning was provided in English.
As a result, her family had to purchase internet service, but her son’s device still did not work on some days. Now in second grade, her son has struggled with school so far this year, according to the lawsuit.
The five plaintiffs, with children ranging from elementary school to middle school, said they had failed to get help from their schools or the education department to resolve technology issues, according to the lawsuit. .
Among their demands, they are asking the city to fix distance learning so that it does not force families to pay anything out of pocket. They also want municipal authorities to develop a complaints process so that families can be reimbursed for all costs related to distance learning since March 2020.
In addition, they want the city to assess the type of school recovery services owed to children who have struggled with distance learning, as well as other damages and attorney fees. The education department created a $ 635 million school stimulus package this year, including a plan to ensure all students have access to a device with internet service and additional services for students with disabilities.
Neither city officials nor the governor’s office immediately responded to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the state’s education department said he was not commenting on the pending litigation.