Our world has been revolutionized by a growing reliance on computers. While this shift has been largely beneficial to education, many of our most vulnerable groups have been left behind. Governor Murphy called it, “an untenable divide. It is not a cost we can ignore, we must address it now.” The reality of the matter is that the divide cuts across racial and economic lines. Students of color and those who are economically disadvantaged are usually the ones that find themselves either lacking devices, connectivity, or both. The state of New Jersey has recently taken important strides in making sure all students have access to the support they need to access the digital world. This is vital with the reality of remote learning being a permanent part of school reopenings this fall.
The fight to close the digital divide was given an extra push with Governor Murphy’s announcement of a plan to use federal funds to be used for devices and connectivity. Details of the plan include using up $54 million in federal emergency funds with additional philanthropic contributions to close the digital divide.The onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the resulting shift to remote learning have only further complicated the digital divide. In July at the announcement of the program NJ officials reported that about 230,000 students are in need of devices and connectivity. It is estimated that the plan would allot about $500 dollars per student, costing a total of about $115 million to close the divide. However, these numbers are due to change as the Department of Education said it would release updated figures in the upcoming weeks.
Individual school districts are also shifting many of their resources to secure devices and connectivity for their students. Notably, the Camden County Educational Services Commission (CCESC) has recently partnered with Xtel Communications to do their part in closing the gap. Xtel Communications has been awarded CCESC’s Digital Divide RFP, which will allow school districts across New Jersey to purchase internet service that can be used by their students. CCESC’s work eases the burden for families as the prospect of distance learning continues. “Providing students with internet access at home is similar to providing them with textbooks or other required school supplies,” stated Daniel Del Vecchio, superintendent of Camden County Educational Services Commission. Partnerships like CCESC and Xtel Communications are the beginning. Another partnership was formed through the Digital Schools Program. On June 1st, NJ School Board’s Association and the NJDOE partnered with Sustainable Schools to create the Sustainable New Jersey Digital Schools Program. Supported by the major coalitions across the state including the LEE group, this program aims to better support districts that need to leverage technology in their schools and communities. “COVID-19 has also shown us how disparities in access to technology among students and schools are exacerbating existing social inequality,” Solomon continued. “The Digital Schools Program will provide schools, teachers, and parents with a roadmap for how to ensure technology is used appropriately to bring about a sustainable future.”
On July 1, 2020, the New Jersey Department of Education released their reopening guidelines for school districts which called for school districts to be prepared for remote connectivity: “Each school district should strive to ensure that every student has access to a device and internet connectivity.” Achieving this is a huge task, Governor Murphy noted that “any help we can get from our business community will allow us to stretch our state funds even further and offset other costs faced in reopening.” The funding provided by Governor Murphy’s plan along with efforts like those of CCESC are solid and necessary steps that are bound to create greater digital equity. At JerseyCAN, we will continue to follow and amplify smart solutions across the state that ensure all students are provided access to the supplies and connectivity they need to thrive.