As the number of cases of COVID-19 in the tri-state area rises to over 150, Governor Andrew Cuomo has declared a state of emergency across New York State. Local universities like Hofstra, Columbia and Yeshiva have shut their doors on students today. But the city has no plans to close public k-12 schools – because tens of thousands of homeless children have nowhere else to go. 34,000 children in New York City’s public school system currently live in emergency shelters, and a further 74,000 have only been spared the same fate by relatives, friends or neighbors who have taken them in. With 1.1 million students, the city has the largest public school system in the United States, one in ten of whom experienced homelessness in the 2018-2019 school year, according to a recent report from education group Advocates for Children. Thus, for many thousands of students, school is the only place they receive regular meals, shelter, medical care, and other vital services. For that reason, School Chancellor Richard A. Carranza said that they would remain open despite the risk and that closures would be considered only as a “last resort.”
Homelessness among young people has reached epidemic proportions nationwide. Federal data shows that more than 1.5 million students across America experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 year, with California atop the table. And yet the problem has become normalized to the point where children in the richest society in world history living on the streets are unremarkable. In a story about homeless New York child chess prodigy Tanitoluwa Adewumi, the New York Times and other media outlets described his playing style and his personal brilliance but did not ponder how he came to be homeless or what that said about the society he lived in. The problem is particularly acute in the Bronx, where 37 percent of residents also often go to bed hungry, the highest rate in the entire country.
While Columbia University intends on teaching classes remotely from Wednesday on, schoolteachers in poorer boroughs note that it is impossible to do the same, as up to half of the students do not have Internet access at home. “We can’t do distance learning,” said Nicole Manning, a ninth-grade math teacher at Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx, “It wouldn’t be fair.”