Coalitions Form to Bridge School Gaps

Community groups join with the city to connect more students

By Sahalie Donaldson

South Bronx students and teachers learned painful lessons about inequity over the past year. Among the most conspicuous: limited internet access thwarts educational progress.

Since the pandemic initially city schools closed in Spring 2020, students have struggled to navigate remote learning without reliable internet service and, sometimes, even a laptop or tablet—necessities for online classes and homework assignments.

Remote learning will end, but your need for a laptop or device at home doesn’t because we are living in a world where everything is online.

Amanda Septimo

Assemblywoman, South Bronx

The result has been low attendance, particularly for students with special needs and those living in shelters. The citywide attendance average rose from 88.6% to 91% this spring as more students returned to in-person learning, according to city Department of Education numbers that cover both in-person and remote classes. In Hunts Point, the median attendance was 86.3% between November and January. Parts of Mott Haven were even worse off. In the zip code 10451, attendance rates were 76.9%.

Hunts Point and Mott Haven are both classified as having low home and mobile broadband connections under the city’s Internet Master Plan, meaning just 34%-54% of households have home and mobile subscriptions.

Lawmakers and advocacy organizations say internet access should be thought of as a necessary utility for all, rather than as a luxury service.

“Remote learning will end, but your need for a laptop or device at home doesn’t because we are living in a world where everything is online,” said Assemblywoman Amanda Septimo, a Democrat who represents the South Bronx. “Even if it’s not your homework that night, there will be some level of research, some level of connectivity that you need.”

Shortly after schools first closed in 2020, the Department of Education scrambled to order and distribute 300,000 tablets and internet connection devices so that students could participate in remote classes.

It wasn’t enough—principals and community groups were left filling the gaps. Even then, many students and parents were at a loss how to set devices up properly and hook into classes via connections such as Zoom. Thousands of students ended up connecting to class and doing homework on their parents’ mobile phones.

In late October, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. led a group of elected officials, parents and others in a Tech Equity Day of Action protest. Lucki Islam, a high school student, said demonstrators were tired of promises on connectivity and needed to see more action.

“Something I’ve learned to take away from this pandemic is that we aren’t all given the same resources and it’s not about inequality it’s about inequity because the DOE can be giving us laptops, but what if we don’t have Wi-Fi?” Islam said. “What if our parents don’t know how to navigate Zoom to open up all of these apps?”


  Luis Serrano of Alexander Avenue doesn’t want to pay $170 for wifi so he goes without.  His canine friends are Queen (left) and Brownie. (Harry Parker)

Connecting to solutions

In the months since, some progress has been made.

Septimo and other Bronx elected officials have been working with local organizations to secure digital devices for students, such as laptops and iPads, that they can keep. Rafael Alvarez, superintendent of South Bronx District 7 schools, has helped connect students with organizations such as DreamYard and South Bronx Rising Together to provide devices.

City Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter, a former Bronx educator, told District 7 families in May that the 2021-22 schools budget will include funds to expand Wi-Fi access at school buildings and create a help desk that parents will be able to access tech issues.

“This year has shown us without a shadow of a doubt how important that is,” Porter said.

Many South Bronx students still don’t have a laptop, an iPad or functional Wi-Fi. And educators note that many assignments, like writing, can’t easily be completed on the touch-screen tablets distributed as the quick fix to allow students to Zoom into classes.

“Until every single student has [a device], we cannot say we’ve accomplished our goal, because right now that is not the case,” said Mariel Charles, who oversees the K-12 work of South Bronx Rising Together.

Charles, co-leader of an education working group within the Bronx Digital Equity Coalition, said the borough president’s office and local organizations have been key to connecting more students. The coalition of nonprofits formed last spring to address educational and other disparities surfaced by the pandemic.

The group created a website to spread awareness about the Emergency Broadband Benefit—a program created by the Federal Communications Commission to help families struggling to pay for home internet service. Households can receive up to a $50 per month discount on broadband if they meet eligibility requirements. (Citizenship is not one of them).

Charles sees the benefit as one of the starting points toward a permanent solution for equitable access to Wi-Fi in the South Bronx.

Serving the most vulnerable

For students living in transitional housing, English-language learners and those with disabilities, accessing education has become even more complex.

South Bronx Rising Together has launched a parent council to help lead their advocacy work and, according to Charles, many members have children with special needs.

“We are also seeing a lot of interest in healing-centered work with parents,” Charles said. “After this year and a half of very difficult times, how do we incorporate a healing-centered approach for our curriculum across the district?”

At the start of the pandemic, very few shelters were equipped with Wi-Fi, according to Jennifer Pringle, director of the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students. As of mid-April 2021, Wi-Fi coverage had gone up to about 75%, following a suit filed in November by The Legal Aid Society on behalf of the Coalition for the Homeless and several families.

A settlement was reached in mid-April requiring the city to finish installing Wi-Fi in all family shelters by Aug. 31—an order that will benefit more than 11,000 children living in some of the 240 shelters across the city.

What comes next

All public schools are to be fully in-person this fall. Still, South Bronx leaders and educators believe some of the strides made over the past year to boost access to Wi-Fi and internet are here to stay.

Teachers are being trained on how to better utilize technology and leverage resources to make sure students can learn new skills during summer school and again in the fall, Charles said.

“We are seeing a real commitment from folks boroughwide, citywide and also federally to at least provide some resources, although again not fully complete, but some resources to assist families, especially our most vulnerable towards some semblance of accessibility,” she said.

  Francisco Aguilar, on behalf of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, reaching out to businesses in the Bronx.

The Online Path Requires Guides

Nonprofits offer training for businesses and job seekers

By Denny Jacob

Francisco Aguilar has been walking commercial streets for the better part of a year, reaching out to more than 2,000 businesses on behalf of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce to promote the benefits of having an online presence.

Connectivity suddenly became one of the chamber’s most pressing issues when the pandemic lockdown hit and shoppers stayed home.

One of the top things that COVID taught us is online presence, whether it’s selling or just keeping the name at the forefront, is important.

Lisa Sorin

President, Bronx Chamber of Commerce

As customers opted to take their shopping and food ordering online, small businesses and restaurants were forced to find ways to move online. It was a slow process that kept many alive until pandemic restrictions were largely lifted. Now it remains just essential for survival—Amazon is not going away.

A helping hand

An employee of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, Aguilar visits businesses to let them know about resources available from the chamber.

Francisco speaking with a business owner in the Bronx. (Photo: Bronx Chamber of Commerce)

If they are starting with no idea about how to support their business online, Aguilar tells them about the Google for Small Business resource. If they have a sense of the digital world, he can point them to methods for ensuring their business is searchable on Google, connect them to up to three hours of consulting for tech and marketing assistance

Sara Crique, owner of Seams, an online clothing business operating out of her home in Mott Haven, was looking for guidance on how she can attract more customers. She said that she received insights on online applications for funding and was connected with an advisor knowledgeable about online advertising.

“One of the top things that COVID taught us is online presence, whether it’s selling or just keeping the name at the forefront, is important,” said chamber president Lisa Sorin. “This way, if you’re forced to close and you have a social media presence, you can still post various things and just keep people knowing that your business is there.”

Training will be key

As more industries shift to remote or hybrid work, there will be a growing need for technologists. Bronx nonprofits such as Per Scholas and Knowledge House are working to create a pipeline of people who can serve as computer programmers or web developers.

”I think all of these sectors that exist in the Bronx and are popular in the Bronx are going through digital transformation, so we need philanthropic, corporate and government investment in the residents on the ground,” said Knowledge House CEO Jerelyn Rodriguez.

An analysis of data on New York City job postings collected by Burning Glass Technologies found that nearly one in five of all jobs posted from April to November 2020 was for a tech position.

Knowledge House and Per Scholas students struggled with poor internet connections and a lack of equipment to complete their work during the pandemic. Both organizations assisted by providing laptops and MiFi devices.

In February, Per Scholas launched a free, virtual tech-support help desk to address questions such as how to connect printers, set up home networks, internet connections and more.

Abe Mendez, managing director of Per Scholas New York, said the pilot program is set to run through July. The organization is looking to make it a formal part of its training program so students gain hands-on experience.

The Doctor Will [Virtually] See You Now

Telemedicine is a lifeline with limits in the Bronx

By Emily Nadal

Last March, Sabrina Vega got a message from her doctor that her usual visit would be cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. Vega has been dealing with anxiety and depression for the past few years and pandemic isolation only worsened her symptoms.

It was very hard in the beginning, but I think telemedicine was the best thing someone could’ve invented right now to help us.

Sabrina Vega

Soon afterward, Vega was notified that her behavioral health doctor would be able to see her virtually, through a video chat.

“It was very hard in the beginning, but I think telemedicine was the best thing someone could’ve invented right now to help us,” says Vega, 42, who lives alone in the Bronx and works as a cashier at the Salvation Army.“I don’t know if everyone thought the same. But it did help me out a lot because in the beginning I thought I was going to go crazy.”

Though the Bronx has dozens of hospitals and medical offices, getting healthcare to residents has long been an issue in the borough. Insurance coverage has been one major barrier.

With too high an instance of illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease and too few regular checkups, treatable ailments worsen and many Bronxites end up in emergency rooms. This has been no more true than during the pandemic, when the rates of illness and death in the Bronx became among the highest in the state.

Implementing a robust telemedicine system proved to be difficult for local providers because the Bronx has the lowest broadband connectivity in the city.

For those with internet service, disruptions and loss of connectivity often made online doctor visits difficult. And neighborhoods like Mott Haven and Hunts Point have high rates of households that are completely disconnected from the internet—23% have no computer or phone connection. Many Bronxites also lack devices to get online, particularly seniors.

Initially, Union Community Health Center, which has five main locations throughout the Bronx, switched to telemedicine to manage COVID-19 diagnosis and treatment. Doctors and patients alike had to scramble to work out the new system.

In response to government mandates, insurance companies quickly started offering telehealth coverage. As the weeks passed, the center and others started providing telehealth visits for services beyond COVID-19.

“Telemedicine is now a lifeline to people during the pandemic,” says Dr. Douglas York, Union Community CEO. “It’s going to remain a lifeline after the pandemic.”

Union Community Health Center’s mobile health unit. (Courtesy of UCHC)

Expanding the reach of care

Telehealth can mean any sort of medical service delivered through electronic means. For many doctors, this often translates to a mix of phone calls or video conferences with patients.

Speaking on the phone can be useful for answering many health questions. Video communication is more ideal. Visual indicators help tell a more accurate story, leading to better diagnosis and treatment.

As routine healthcare visits stalled when the pandemic took hold, Union Community sought donated devices for patients without any and began a partnership with Telehealth for Seniors. That organization was created last year to help older people without internet-connected electronics.

“There are a lot of different things that we do,” says Abe Baker-Butler, New York lead at Telehealth for Seniors. “But it’s all aimed at meeting telehealth needs and enabling low-income seniors who, as a result of the digital divide, can’t connect and engage in telemedicine services to improve their health outcomes.”

Union Community has been able to reach a lot of seniors on video. Yet a majority of its older patients are still opting for phone calls. Even so, telemedicine engagement for UCHC increased 400% in 2020.

“Telemedicine went from being this thing most docs had never really used before to something we all got very comfortable with,” says Dr. Ladi Oki, family medical doctor at Montefiore Medical Center.

Oki used to feel bad about having patients come all the way into the office for quick followup visits. He understood that a trip to the doctor for many meant taking partial or full days off from work or lots of travel time, all for maybe 15 minutes with him. These days, most of his check-ins happen virtually.

“I’ve been doing probably a fifty-fifty mix of telemedicine and in-person visits,” says Oki.

Telehealth for seniors. Distributing devices. (Abe Baker Butler)

The limits of treatment at a distance

If a patient wanted to access telehealth services before COVID-19, the visit was seldom covered by insurance. When telehealth services were covered,it was usually through a third- party company that connected patients to a random doctor for a one-off appointment.

Further, many medical offices and hospitals did not have proper systems in place to virtually talk with patients. The pandemic rushed the process of revolutionizing medicine and equipping providers as well as patients with the necessary tools. The Bronx still lags behind other areas of the state and Oki worries that more telemedicine could mean more disparities.

“I do think there is a potential role for telemedicine in improving healthcare experiences,” says Oki. “But then when you have a borough that has less access to broadband or higher-strength internet connections or less access to technology needed, then you wind up creating this tiered healthcare system where people who have the means can access top grade care. And people who don’t can’t necessarily access it.”

Both York and Oki believe telemedicine is here to stay, and only getting better, so the country has to start implementing sustainable solutions. Both doctors continue to push for state legislation that would make telehealth services automatically covered by insurance. Some companies reimburse phone visits at lower rates than video conferences, which puts some Bronx doctors at a disadvantage if their patients can’t connect to video.

Dr. Oki’s telemedicine setup. (Dr. Oki)

Reaching patients where they are

Union Community has opened a mobile medical unit equipped with basic primary health services and imaging equipment. York says he used to have trouble financially justifying sending specialists out on the mobile unit all day. Now with telemedicine, patients also can virtually connect with a specialist from the truck.

“The advantage of using telemedicine on a mobile unit is that we could go to a housing facility, a shelter or a school. And we could run not only general primary-care types of sessions, but we can say ‘All right, this week, we’re going to have a gastroenterologist on the unit or we’re going to have somebody who connects back here where that specialist exists’” says York.

Behavioral and mental health services have also extended their reach. Teletherapy allows patients to speak with healthcare providers from the safety and comfort of their living environment. With the pandemic triggering mental health issues, offering care virtually has been the connection and reassurance a lot of people needed.

For Vega, video visits with her doctor continue to be a sacred time, especially during the pandemic. She relies on internet connectivity to see her doctor instead of just hearing her voice over the phone. That face time makes all the difference.

“If you know about Hispanics, we talk a lot with our hands and I’ve been so long with [my doctor] that she understands me when I do my hand gestures,” says Vega. “Whoever invented telemedicine, God bless them ’cause it has helped me a lot.”

(Photos by Moses Bustos)

Leaving NYCHA Residents Behind

New public programs don’t find their way to the South Bronx

By Gabriel Poblete

The digital divide remains all too visible for public-housing tenants in the South Bronx.

I mean, this is the kind of thing that should be free right now.

Ronald Toppping

Many public and private efforts have been launched to speed up efforts to provide affordable broadband to the New York City Housing Authority’s more than 300 developments. A long-term solution remains a long way off—especially in the South Bronx.

In July 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would prioritize public-housing communities in accelerating broadband deployment. He budgeted $157 million to extend internet options for 600,000 underserved New Yorkers, including 200,000 NYCHA residents

The city selected five internet service providers to serve 13 NYCHA complexes. None of them are in the Bronx, home to more NYCHA properties than any other borough.

NYCHA officials, who did not respond to a request for comment, aren’t saying why.

At the state level, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation requiring providers to offer high-speed internet for $15 to $20 a month for low-income New Yorkers. That effort is stalled in court. Verizon and Altice, the two key internet providers in the South Bronx, are offering $15-$20 per month internet service to qualified low-income residents, but the expectation is that those deals will expire as the pandemic recedes.

Ronald Topping, president of the John Adams Houses tenant association, has been able to go online using one of the 10,000 tablets the city provided to NYCHA seniors last year. The tablets can connect to the internet through a partnership between the city and T-Mobile. The city announced in April that it would renew internet access for the devices for another year.

Before getting his tablet, Topping would use the internet at his residents’ council office. He said the city ought to hand out more free tablets to residents who need them.

“I haven’t paid for it since I got my tablet. I’m just waiting for them to send me a bill,” Topping said. “I’m hoping that I don’t see one. If I do get one—I mean, this is the kind of thing that should be free right now.”

Pre-pandemic attempts to bring broadband to NYCHA complexes stumbled. In 2015, five developments—including the Mott Haven Houses in the South Bronx—were slated to benefit from a $10 million investment by the city, arranged by the Office of the Mayor’s Counsel, the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications and NYCHA.

However, only one, the Queensbridge Houses, has received service, according to the New York Post.

Privately driven solutions

Volunteer-run NYC Mesh, one of the five providers selected by the city to connect NYCHA complexes, is looking to provide affordable and free internet to city residents via a network consisting of wireless routers mounted on rooftops that act as nodes.

NYC Mesh was awarded a contract to service NYCHA’s 303 Vernon Ave. development in Brooklyn. NYC Mesh engineer Rob Johnson said they’re in the process of providing Wi-Fi access points in its courtyard.

The architecture of public developments can play an instrumental role in a mesh network’s reach. “The way our technology works, you need a tall building that all the short buildings can see,” Johnson said. “And so that’s NYCHA in many parts of the city,”

Obstacles do remain. Johnson said that even when a router is installed on a roof, wires need to be cabled through a building to get service into apartments. That can be expensive. One cost-cutting option: hallway Wi-Fi access points that can beam service throughout a building.

He expressed doubts about state-mandated $15-a-month broadband plans. Companies often disqualify those who previously have missed a payment from signing up.

Poor connectivity impacts all aspects of life in the South Bronx. more >

Bronxites are building home-grown solutions to the divide. more >

Community groups provide services and collaborate on long-term fixes.. more >