Is Technology Gap Impeding Remote Learning for 100,000 NJ Students?

DOE data is thin on ground, but department certain many students without internet or devices still being reached with paper-and-pencil packets
Credit: Julia M. Cameron via Pexels
Remote learning

A month into the closure of New Jersey’s schools, roughly 100,000 students — nearly 10% of the state’s enrollment — still don’t have the technology at home to participate in the distance learning that most districts are relying on, according to the latest tally by the state Department of Education.

The department has yet to release more detailed numbers for each district, but according to its April 8 survey, about 150,000 students lack the necessary computers or other devices and, of those, 98,000 also lack reliable internet access at home, officials said.

Still, officials remained confident both that students were receiving instruction by other means, including paper-and-pencil packets, and that the technology gap continued to close. Some 12,000 families gained internet access in the past two weeks, they said, through arrangements with private and public providers.

“The good news is we have seen a lot of movement,” said Katherine Gallagher, the deputy assistant commissioner for field services who is overseeing much of the monitoring.

“We are doing everything in our power that children are learning every day,” she said in an interview with NJ Spotlight.

A gap that won’t go away

Yet the technology gap remains wide, and others were concerned at the persistently high numbers.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who is leading legislative efforts to set up a statewide task force monitoring educational support during the pandemic, last night called the latest figures “a huge problem.”

“There are a lot of pools of money that the department should be ready to draw down for this,” Ruiz said. “I would hope the department is pushing districts to close that gap.”

Gov. Phil Murphy didn’t speak to the specific figures yesterday when asked about the issue at his daily press briefing, but he said the technology gap remained a concern. Murphy also said he was confident that students were receiving instruction by whatever means.

“It is very hard to bat 1.000, and anybody with a kid right now who is remote-learning is living that,” he said. “And it depends on the age of the kid and the grade they are in terms of the relative richness of the experience.”

“But the standard concern we had spoken to was first the food security and then the access to devices,” he said. “I know it was raised in the early days, and there was unevenness in that respect … The hoped-for answer is that is working, and I think for the most part it is.”

Repeated technology surveys

As part of its outreach, the department has surveyed districts three times in the last six weeks about their use of technology and family access. The first was before the closures in mid-March, the second on March 26, the third on April 8-9.  

That updated data has yet to be released by the department, despite repeated requests. The department last night released county data, with the greatest needs in Essex and Mercer counties.

Gallagher, the deputy assistant commissioner, said the data is an incomplete picture, to be sure. Districts were not required to respond to the surveys, she said, and the state left it with each district to define access differently.

But she said the department has nonetheless used the data to work with districts with the greatest apparent needs and to help organize resources to help address them, whether it’s through public or private funds.

She said the state has continued to act more as a facilitator than enforcer. “We think it is our responsibility to understand what the needs are in the field,” she said.

“Districts are very proactive on their own, and they are not waiting for the state to do it for them,” Gallagher continued.

When asked whether she worried about the lack of access for so many students, Gallagher said the state continues to work to address any inequities.

“But I don’t worry that kids aren’t learning, because I know that they are,” she said. “We have a robust system for staying in touch with districts and making sure they are staying on top of it and making sure their students are learning.

“I know it feels like a lifetime, but it has been just a few weeks and there was little-to-no preparation time,” Gallagher said. “Districts in my view have done a really admirable job in putting plans together and executing those plans.”