State officials revealed steps to close the digital divide for New Jersey students on July 16.
The move is being made after K-12 school districts were forced to close in March and scramble to offer online learning to students the rest of the school year. The New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) estimates that more than 230,000 students across the state have been impacted by the digital divide.
With an eye toward the coming school year, where schools are expected to have a hybrid schedule of both in-person and continued remote learning to adhere to COVID-19 safety mandates, the state is offering a $115 million plan to close the gap.
“By taking these steps to close the digital divide and equip students in need with personal device access and internet connectivity, we can ensure that students continue to succeed in these unprecedented times,” said Gov. Phil Murphy at a press briefing.
After considering other available district funding sources and estimating need based on June 2020 survey data and low-income enrollment data, the DOE estimates that the cost to close the digital divide is approximately $54 million.
Interim Commissioner of Education Kevin Dehmer said after shifting to remote learning, “it became clear that we need to address the digital divide among the students who lack access to technology. Our plan will help put structures in place to help districts focus on families with the greatest need.”
The Administration’s approach to closing the digital divide is three-pronged and consists of the following:
- The New Jersey Economic Development Authority released a Request for Information , seeking information and ideas to bridge the digital divide for New Jersey’s pre-K-to-12 students, including philanthropic support from companies and organizations to help close the digital divide in public schools. District information from the DOE will help connect school districts in need with identified philanthropic partners and potential solutions;
- The DOE will offer a one-time $10 million formula grant using a portion of the state’s federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds. This funding will be disbursed to public school districts to purchase digital devices and internet connectivity for one-to-one student use based on need and the availability of philanthropic donations; and
- The state will use $50 million in Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) funds to close any remaining gap and fill the unmet digital device and internet connectivity needs of New Jersey students. Up to $44 million in CRF funds will be available for this purpose, with an additional $6 million available for nonpublic schools.
Murphy even floated an idea of philanthropic foundations and companies adopting school districts to help bridge the digital divide.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) noted there are still thousands of kids around the state who, after three months of virtual instruction, are prevented from connecting with their teachers or interacting with materials because of the technology deficit.
“This use of funding, to connect every single New Jersey student to online learning by the time school starts in the fall is critical to preventing further learning loss and ensuring we are prepared for what is to come in September and throughout the remainder of the school year,” said Ruiz, chair of the Senate Education Committee.
“The pandemic has exacerbated and illuminated the divide in our educational settings and this is a meaningful first step towards bridging those gaps and achieving equity across our districts as we deal with this public health emergency and beyond.”
Communities of Color
In July, the DOE released guidance to assist schools in preparing for the upcoming school year and establishing a learning model that includes the possibility of employing both remote and in-person learning, meaning that students will need continued access to the internet and digital devices.
State Sen. Ron Rice (D-28) noted the effect has been most felt on communities of color in urban settings, resulting in those students falling behind other students around the state.
“In order to prevent lower levels of educational attainment, we must utilize federal funds to vastly shrink the technological divide plaguing our urban students of color,” said Rice in a press statement.