Weeks into the academic year, state education officials in New Jersey still can’t account for the number of students unable to get online for remote learning, which is playing a critical role during the pandemic. Despite strides made in the last few months, they also don’t have a full picture on the number of families who have a device or those struggling to stay reliably connected.
“The state just has to accept that internet connectivity at home now has to be part of a free, public education,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a Newark-based nonprofit that advocates for school equity. “We have to make sure that every kid has this, whether or not they can afford it.”
Sciarra said it’s hard for the state to fix a problem without updated information because closing the digital divide is more than just giving every student a device. Laptops break, students move, and their connectivity at home can change.
“We still don’t have a reliable set of data that allows us to understand where these students are and more importantly…the particular barriers they are facing,” he said.
New Jersey schools have made gains over the summer to ensure every student had a device and could connect to the internet. They asked for donations, received federal grant dollars and redirected money from after-school programs.
School districts in June told the New Jersey Department of Education they needed more than 350,000 laptops and iPads. But a device isn’t enough for the 100,000 students who lack internet access, and the DOE didn’t have current numbers on how many students started the school year without a device or how many still can’t get online.
A spokesperson said the DOE plans to track districts’ efforts throughout the year but did not provide details on how to do so.
Listen to reporter Karen Yi’s radio story on New Jersey’s digital divide at schools on WNYC:
For now, parents such as Eva Mendez are adapting to this period of virtual learning. These days, the mother of three spends a lot of time at home trying to keep quiet as her kids — 12, 10, and 9 years old — attend classes remotely, each set up in a different room.
“I have to find them a space so they have their own privacy, so they don’t hear too much noise,” Mendez said in Spanish.
Each of her children are currently attending classes virtually, using their own devices. That’s a change from last spring, when the three of them shared a single laptop. While one worked on the Chromebook, the other two took turns on Mendez’s phone or completed paper worksheets.
But with three devices constantly on, the internet speed lags, disrupting remote learning for Mendez’s kids. Sometimes her daughter gets frustrated and cries, especially if her teacher marks her absent because she can’t log on in the morning.
But Mendez can’t afford to pay for faster internet.
“We’re behind in a lot of things,” Mendez said, citing her accumulating rent on her Passaic home. The pandemic sickened her husband and she had to stop working to care for her kids.
This summer, Governor Phil Murphy earmarked $54 million of the state’s federal stimulus money towards schools so they could buy internet-enabled devices. That gave districts another bucket of federal funds to tap into.
Schools could also use $291 million in federal CARES funding that was allocated to each district for coronavirus-related expenses, such as portable devices and Wi-Fi hotspots. And districts that receive Title 1 funds because they serve low-income students could also direct any leftover federal money towards technology needs.
Murphy said districts would receive another $100 million in federal stimulus money the state was setting aside to help schools reopen. Districts are due to receive these funds in the next few weeks.
The digital divide is not something that sprung up during the COVID-19 outbreak, but exacerbated it, according to Tanya Maloney, a professor who focuses on teacher education at Montclair State University.
“We knew that it was a problem going into the pandemic and it was fine until it literally meant the end of learning for a whole swath of children,” said Maloney. She added that the pandemic forced the state to finally address a decades-long problem — or at least direct some money towards it.
District superintendents who spoke to Gothamist/WNYC said the federal funding streams were a godsend, and helped them achieve their goal of getting every student a device. But many families are still reporting spotty connections.
Maria Medranda, 15, said her internet kicks her and her brother off their sessions at least once a day. They’re both students at public schools in Elizabeth.
“It’s very unpredictable,” she said. Medranda said her family canceled their cable TV so they could afford faster internet.
Throughout the pandemic, the Murphy administration’s approach has been to give districts flexibility. But that’s largely left them on their own, figuring out how to reopen and get the technology they need through disparate sources of funding. Districts have been caught in the middle of a multitude of problems like supply shortages, back orders, and even an international trade war.
When Paterson Schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer purchased 13,800 Chromebooks, the shipment got stuck in China — and the laptops that made it to Newark Liberty International Airport were sent back because the plant manufacturing the Chromebooks was on a U.S. sanctions list for human rights violations.
“Finally, we had the money, but we could not get the product,” she said. She credits her staff for hitting the phones to find a backup supplier. Shafer said she wanted to avoid a repeat of the spring when only her high schoolers had devices. All other students had to pick up a classwork packet.
“We had a nightmare going on here because every ten days we were giving students paper packets. And when you have 29,000 children, that’s a lot of paper and a lot of packets,” she said.
Days before the start of school, laptops from another supplier arrived. And for the first time, every Paterson student had a device — complete with Wi-Fi.
That was the case for thousands of students around the state, like 10-year-old Josiah Bond in Hillside. Last March he was filling out worksheets he received in the mail but this year he’s learning decimals with his favorite math teacher online.
“I enjoy it more this way,” he said. “Sometimes I get a little sleepy but I try to wake up. Like if the teachers say that we are going to do something fun. I get more excited and I start waking up.”
But Shafer said the challenges of remote learning go beyond having a device and stable internet. Now that her students are all connected online, there’s still the issue of childcare for working parents and making sure students are staying engaged during their virtual sessions.
“It’s not, you know, give everybody a device and you’re good to go,” she said.