As more N.J. schools go virtual in the fall, 230K students are stuck in the ‘digital divide’

As more schools are opting to start the year with virtual instruction, bridging this divide is a financial and logistical challenge.

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Like scores of other students this spring, Halimah Herbert’s graduation ceremony from Newark Tech High School was virtual.

That was disappointing enough, but Herbert said her shoddy Wi-Fi made it even worse.

“I missed half of my ceremony because of my internet connection,” Herbert said.

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It wasn’t the first time her unstable internet connection impacted her education since schools went remote in the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. Because her Wi-Fi connection was so poor, Herbert regularly used her phone as a hotspot to connect her school-issued computer to the internet, but that was unreliable too.

“I think [teachers] thought I was lying or they just thought I didn’t want to do the work, but I’m like, ‘I cannot do this work because my internet connection isn’t working,’” she said.

Herbert is one of an estimated 230,000 students across New Jersey who either don’t have a computer or lack a reliable connection to the internet, according to the state Department of Education.

The problem of the “digital divide” in the Garden State has become even more urgent as schools move toward hybrid or all-virtual options in the fall in response to the ongoing pandemic. Gov. Phil Murphy said on Wednesday that schools unable to meet safety requirements can open entirely remotely, reversing an earlier mandate that schools offer at least some in-person instruction.

Now the question is whether the Murphy administration can close the digital divide in time for perhaps millions of students to begin the new academic year from home.

“We are pounding away,” Murphy said Wednesday during a coronavirus briefing. “It’s a frustration for many of us.”

“We have committed the dollars we need to close the digital divide, which is both devices and access, but in this environment in particular you cannot turn on a dime,” he added.

In July, Murphy announced a plan to close the digital divide that relied on federal coronavirus relief funding as well as philanthropy. He estimated that the total cost to equip students with internet-connected devices would be $115 million.

Through the plan, the Department of Education is offering grants to reimburse districts that purchase new technology for students, but according to spokesman Michael Yaple that reimbursement process has not begun.

The state also received 35 responses to its request for information soliciting ideas and philanthropic support to close the digital divide, according to a list provided by the Economic Development Authority through a public records request. Comcast, Apple, and the International Rescue Committee were among the entities that responded.

Still, many are skeptical that Murphy’s announcement in mid-July — despite knowing about the looming issue far earlier — gave districts enough time to purchase new technology and provide it to students by September.

“We knew in early March. We knew it in April. We knew it in May. We knew it in June. We knew it in July,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex. “And it’s still going to be a pressing problem in September.”

Both houses of the state legislature passed a bill in mid-March sponsored by Ruiz and other lawmakers to provide grants to districts to expand access to technology, but Murphy vetoed it in May citing the “indeterminate, unbudgeted cost.”

Another proposal (S1458/A185) would provide loans to telecommunications companies to expand high-speed broadband services, particularly in rural areas. The state Senate unanimously passed that legislation in July.

Some districts that have put in orders for new technology are facing delays. The Paterson School District announced that it would not have the new Chromebooks it ordered in June until late September or early October.

Ruiz said the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in the education system. Federal data indicates that low-income and Black and Latino families have less reliable access to the internet at home.

“COVID-19 didn’t create this problem. These are issues that have been facing the communities I represent — my families and my students — for decades,” Ruiz said. “What this does do though, is it does compound that.”

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