Gotham Gazette Sat, 28 Nov 2020 14:52:46 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) As De Blasio Promises WiFi in Shelters to Help Homeless Children Learn, Advocates Question Tardiness and Implementation back ch ric

Remote learning in action (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Amid widespread criticism about a lack of internet access for students in homeless shelters who need to get online more than ever to complete their school work, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would equip every shelter with WiFi. But advocates are raising questions about execution of that pledge, especially as tens of thousands of students living in shelters need internet access now in order to engage in remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite de Blasio’s promise, issued Monday, to “ensure that every shelter gets WiFi,” no concrete plan for implementation has been offered publicly, though the mayor said Tuesday that he has one that will be shared.

“The instruction I have given to the Law Department and to Social Services is to ensure that every shelter gets Wi-Fi,” de Blasio said Monday. “We’ve got to stop this and make sure everyone has what they need. In terms of devices, I want to keep emphasizing, one, any parent, any kid with a problem should call 311 and let us know immediately.”

“Children in our shelters desperately need assistance with remote learning and have never received the tools they need to succeed from Mayor Bill de Blasio or the NYC Department of Education,” said Christine Quinn, the former City Council Speaker who is now the president and CEO of Win, New York City’s largest provider of shelter and support services for homeless women and their children, in a statement reacting to de Blasio’s pledge.

“We have worked tirelessly to make up the gap, hiring in-house technical support staff to navigate the Department of Education’s (DOE) service and using grant dollars to privately fund iPads, laptops, and hot spots to our students,” said Quinn.

Although the de Blasio administration did release its longtime-coming “Internet Master Plan” in January, and announced an acceleration of it in July amid the COVID-19 pandemic, promising to provide universal broadband access to city residents, the plan did not specifically mention homeless shelters, according to the New York City Bar Association, in an August press release.

The plan prioritized public housing developments, “which have suffered disproportionately during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the mayor’s July press release said. As well as investing “$157 million in ending digital redlining and providing high-speed internet,” and using “$87 million redirected from the NYPD budget.”

The Bar Association cited a recent report from its Justice Center’s Legal Clinic for the Homeless that found that “75 percent of surveyed shelter residents agreed that internet access would help improve their circumstances.” According to the report, “67 percent of homeless shelter residents wanted but had no regular access to the internet, and only 6 percent were able to access the internet through their shelters.”

In that August statement, the Bar Association called on the de Blasio administration to “prioritize City residents most impacted by the pandemic and to provide reliable Wi-Fi connections to shelter residents, updated Internet-ready devices,” and “Wireless or Bluetooth printers.”

Although advocates and others have demanded de Blasio detail plans to help students in shelters access Wi-Fi since the start of the pandemic, the mayor has not focused on wiring up shelters, instead pointing to the hundreds of thousands of internet-enabled devices that the city has been giving out to students in and out of shelters upon request, though tens of thousands of students are still awaiting those devices as the new school year continues toward November. Then came his shelter promise on Monday, seemingly provoked by a Daily News report about lack of access and devices.

In a letter written to de Blasio and the Department of Education (DOE) by City Comptroller Scott Stringer at the start of the school year, Stringer urged the city to “provide direct support to the over 100,000 children who experience homelessness each year.”

In his letter, Stringer called on the City to “designate an interagency Director of Students in Temporary Housing charged with addressing the educational needs of this vulnerable population.” 

The de Blasio administration launched the Learning Bridges program, which provides a free child care option for some children in 3-K through 8th grade who are in the blended learning model on days they are doing remote learning, with access pending application and a needs hierarchy the city established. However, “if these sites are not located near shelters, many students who most need these spaces may not be able to access them,” Stringer wrote.

Meanwhile, “City policy prohibits any child under the age of 18 from remaining in a shelter unit without a parent,” Stringer noted, especially relevant given that Learning Bridges is not available to high school-aged students.

“There's such a stigma for teenagers and youth for being homeless. That became a big benefit from having WiFi,” said Ted Houghton, President of Gateway Housing, a non-profit that works with homeless shelters in the city, including through a technical assistance program to help providers bring Wi-Fi to shelters. 

With a lack of stable internet access in homeless shelters and not every student equipped with an internet-enabled device from the city, some children are unable to log on for their remote classes, leading to questions about school administrators who may report the parents for the virtual truancy. 

“That is not a situation of neglect,” de Blasio said during his Monday press briefing, when asked about that possibility and pledging to rectify the internet access gap. “If a family is trying to solve a problem, we should be working with them and not giving them the impression that we are judging them negatively,” the mayor added.

Gateway Housing, which has worked with BronxWorks, CAMBA, and Help USA to equip shelters with Wi-Fi, saw both “an increase in the number of families going online, and an increase in “the amount of participation in virtual learning,” said Houghton.

Another concern, Houghton said, surrounds the monthly cost of Wi-Fi once it is installed in shelters with families.

“Each of these buildings is going to have what is essentially a corporate Wi-Fi account and that starts adding up,” said Houghton. “We do not want to see an unfunded mandate to shelter providers, because there is a cost associated with internet service.”

“You're talking about small shelters that might cost $10,000 to wire, very large shelters, some of which are spread out among many different buildings, that are going to cost more than $100,000,” Houghton added.

Responding to de Blasio’s initial announcement, attorneys representing homeless New Yorkers questioned the mayor’s commitment.

"The devil is in the details, and while we welcome this announcement, too much time has passed with too little action for us to accept it at face value,” said Susan Horwitz, Supervising Attorney of the Education Law Project at The Legal Aid Society, in a statement released Tuesday, wherein Legal Aid called on the de Blasio administration to quickly detail how it will get WiFi installed at all city shelters.

“City Hall should have addressed this issue several months ago,” she said.

“There is a plan in place,” de Blasio said Tuesday when asked at his daily press briefing about the criticism from Legal Aid and others. “We'll certainly go over it publicly. The idea here is to go through every shelter where there's kids. Obviously we have shelters that are adults only, that doesn't count, but shelters where there are kids get Wi-Fi in place. Some shelters that's going to be easier than others, depending on the physical reality. I want to make sure the kids have options immediately so they can study wherever they need to. So we'll lay out the plan and what it's going to take, what we're going to do short-term, what it's going to take to get every single shelter done. That's a commitment we make. Our IT department, DoITT, is leading the way, working with our Department of Social Services, and we will make sure every shelter has services. It’s as simple as that.”

Asked to provide the administration’s plan, the mayor’s press office did not respond to Gotham Gazette’s inquiry.

[Read: De Blasio Administration Pledges to Finally Address City's Persistent 'Digital Divide' with Universal Internet Access]

by Anna Conkling, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

As De Blasio Promises WiFi in Shelters to Help Homeless Children Learn, Advocates Question Tardiness and Implementation Tue, 27 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Investing in 5G is Crucial for Ensuring High Quality Education for New York Students tech in schools

technology in schools (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

21st century education requires 21st century innovation. If we want students to think critically and creatively to learn to solve problems and succeed in today’s modern world they also need and must have access to modern technology.

A decade ago, laptops, tablets, desktop computers, and internet access were just beginning to be introduced into schools and classrooms. Today, these tools are commonplace across New York and the nation, integrated into lesson plans and required for homework completion. And although cellphones can sometimes be distracting to students in school, more curriculum and education resources are being developed for mobile devices than ever before.

However, the classrooms of tomorrow will feature technology that today seems like science fiction: Virtual reality that lets teachers instruct students remotely in real time; augmented reality that students can use to conduct complex experiments; robots that interact with students and help monitor their learning progress; super high-speed connectivity that allows for massive amounts of information to be downloaded in just a few seconds. 

Students now in the K-12 system, members of so-called Generation Z, are tech natives; screens, social media and surfing the ‘net are as natural to them as breathing, and this has forced teachers and administrators to upend traditional instructional models.  

But it’s the incoming crop of students, dubbed Generation Alpha, who will force the true revolution of education. Born beginning in 2010 – the same year Apple debuted the iPad – these kids will be fully tech-integrated, having never known anything other than the modern digital age.

If the education community fails to adapt to meet the needs and expectations of this new crop of students, we risk losing them altogether.  

A 2013 Gallup poll of 500,000 students in grades five through 12 found that nearly eight in ten elementary students were “engaged” with school, but by high school, that number had dropped to four in ten. Once they got into their teenage years, students reported that school left them feeling “bored” and “stressed” instead of excited and engaged.  

This phenomenon will only worsen if we don’t rise to the challenge of educating the next generation. To do so, New York must make investments now in high-speed connectivity, ensuring that every child across the state has access to the most up-to-date technology that will be necessary for success. 

5G, the next evolution of wireless connectivity, is not only essential to this success but also to ensuring that New York leads the nation in creating a modern education system that truly matches needs of the modern world.

Governor Andrew Cuomo is right for recognizing that the development of the small cell technology is necessary for making 5G a reality across New York. The governor made clear in his executive budget proposal that streamlining the process for establishing a statewide small cell network is crucial for making sure all New Yorkers have access to high-speed broadband service. 

Access to high-speed networks is also important in higher education, enabling students and faculty around the state, the nation, and even the world to communicate and collaborate, which is the bedrock of the academic experience as well as the foundation for our economic well-being.

Improvements in connectivity will only further enhance the ability of the higher ed community to work together and share information, facilitating research breakthroughs that help build our economy and keep us on the cutting edge. 

Better connectivity will also improve distance learning, an increasingly popular way to provide access to college classes for a wide variety of “nontraditional” students, like military personnel, single mothers, or mid-career professionals. 

These students cannot, for reasons of transportation, childcare, or other challenges, attend regularly scheduled classes in person. Enhancing distance learning opportunities will help them further their education and get better jobs, improving the quality of life for them and their families while also helping to boost the state’s economy. 

New York has long recognized the benefit of technology in education. In 2014, state voters approved the Smart Schools Bond Act, authorizing the issuance of $2 billion worth of bonds to pay for upgrades and advancements – including in broadband or wireless connectivity for schools and their communities. 

But if investment is not made to improve the statewide network, these local improvements will be for naught and that money will be wasted. 

New York is clearly moving in the right direction when it comes to making sure school-age kids are getting the sound, basic education to which they are constitutionally entitled. 

The state Education Department recently released the latest data on graduation rates and found they’ve risen by 7.3 percent for students who entered high school in 2015 compared to those who did so in 2006. In addition, the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers has diminished between 1.5 and 6.8 percent. 

New York must keep this progress going by taking the lead in building the broadband infrastructure that gives all New Yorkers access to modern technology and connectivity they need to succeed and thrive.

Andrew Rasiej is the founder and CEO of Civic Hall. On Twitter @Rasiej.

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Investing in 5G is Crucial for Ensuring High Quality Education for New York Students Wed, 05 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Community WiFi is Already Here, Now It's Time to Expand It mayor office central

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office )

While politicians and industry focus on 5G wireless, the democratization of more common wireless technology has quietly made community-run wifi networks faster, better and cheaper than cable.

Look for wifi anywhere in New York City and you’ll likely find dozens of locked networks, each of which represents (more or less) someone giving a giant consumer internet company like Verizon, Spectrum, or Optimum around a thousand dollars a year. For years, technologists have dreamed of replacing these individual networks with community-run “mesh networks” that would allow people to share fast, secure connections while paying a fraction of the cost of conventional internet service providers.

This dream has, unfortunately, not turned into a reality for the vast majority of New Yorkers, and there are reasons for that.

The cable companies don’t want us to share our online connections because they’d lose a LOT of money -- billions and billions of dollars -- so their consumer internet contracts make sharing illegal. The manufacturers of consumer wifi routers don’t want us to share either, so they don’t make it easy to link routers together in a convenient way for multi-unit wifi sharing. And so, if you think like an internet consumer, efficient wifi sharing just isn’t practical. But if you think like an internet producer, the view begins to change.

Believe it or not, the internet is not a private club that only Optimum, Verizon, and the other consumer internet service providers (ISPs) allow us to access. It’s more like a water system. Consumer ISPs set up plumbing to get wifi (water) from the internet’s “backbone” (think water main) to your house, usually using the same coaxial cable that they laid down to offer cable TV decades ago, and now newer fiber connections.

But others can also build that plumbing.

NYC Mesh is a community-owned and managed internet network committed to creating a more equitable internet by connecting all New Yorkers to high-speed, affordable broadband. To achieve this, NYC Mesh volunteers have collectively built the plumbing needed to take the internet from the “backbone” to the surface, and are now using newly inexpensive wireless radios to move it from rooftop to rooftop, window sill to window sill, to create fast and free community-run wireless networks.

A few years ago NYC Mesh was relatively slow, but thanks to the massive improvements in inexpensive radio technologies, they can now offer speeds comparable to traditional commercial offerings.

So what does that mean? Instead of paying $80/month ($960/year) or more to your cable company, you could connect to NYC Mesh with a $100 radio antenna and get free internet. They request donations of $20/month ($340/year) to keep the shared network running and to help connect the nearly 30% of New Yorkers currently without an internet connection at home. With that donation, subscribers still be saving over $500/year while helping to grow the physical and social infrastructure of a new way to connect online.

There is, of course, a catch -- at least for now. You can only access NYC Mesh if you can point a radio at one of their radios, and their radios currently cover only a small fraction of the city: mostly the east side of lower Manhattan, Chinatown, Williamsburg, Bedford Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Brownsville, Sunset Park, South Slope, Park Slope, Red Hook, Ridewood, and parts of Crown Heights. And even if you live in those neighborhoods, unless you can get a radio on your roof, you might not be able to connect. But the network is constantly growing as new wireless hubs come online every week, so it's likely that it’ll be easy to connect to it in the next few years if you can’t now.

What the network needs most to grow is rooftops where 5-10 foot poles and $240 radios can be placed. If more rooftops were made available, the entire city could be blanketed from the streets to the rooftop in self-organized, self-funded NYC Mesh.

nyc mesh article map 2

NYC Mesh doesn’t need government money to grow, but it could definitely use government roof tops. New York City’s government has a lot of them. If the city would make rooftop space on its nearly 4,000 public schools and libraries accessible to NYC Mesh, and/or NYCHA would allow rooftop access with agreements to connect residents, then the network could quickly grow citywide.

If New York City had a robust, community-funded, voluntarily-organized network, it would give the city and its residents a significantly stronger negotiating position when dealing with the cable companies, resulting in significant cost savings for everyone. 

Grassroots movements like NYC Mesh aren’t waiting for “the city” to act. They’re already working with individual agencies, community organizations, elected officials, and anyone else with an interest in deploying fast and free wifi to where it’s needed most. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in collaboration with BetaNYC and (my nonprofit) Sarapis, has a demonstration of NYC Mesh technology at her office at the David Dinkins Municipal Building. Her office’s system, which I and other volunteers helped set up, is achieving gigabit speeds and beaming wifi down to City Hall Park and toward City Council and agency staff at 120 Broadway who often complain about their sluggish internet connections.

So, New Yorkers! Consider this your invitation to fast, free wifi. RSVP here.

Devin Balkind is a nonprofit executive, civic technologist, and startup advisor running for Public Advocate as the Libertarian Party nominee. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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Community WiFi is Already Here, Now It's Time to Expand It Thu, 12 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000