Repollet Gets Earful from Lawmakers over Lack of Progress in Closing Digital Divide

‘The fact that we are not more angry and livid about this is extraordinary,’ Sen. Teresa Ruiz told state education commissioner
Screenshot of NJ Senate Education Committee’s June 8 hearing on education during the pandemic and Department of Education fall reopening plans

When the COVID-19 pandemic first shut New Jersey’s schools in mid-March, the lack of technology for tens of thousands of New Jersey’s schoolchildren to connect to online learning was worrisome.

Now, almost three months later and with no better numbers to report, patience is running thin.

State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet went before the state Senate Education Committee on Tuesday to give an update on how schools were faring at the close of this once-in-a-lifetime academic year and what preparations were in place for next fall.

But amid the details of social-distancing guidance and health orders, the online hearing ended up a pretty harsh scolding for the commissioner. Senate Democrats especially were unsparing over the state’s lack of progress in closing the digital divide, an issue that Gov. Phil Murphy had said would be priority when schools were shuttered.

“The fact we are not more angry and livid about this is extraordinary,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the committee’s chair, who led the discussion. “We talk about equity and then we do things that are anti-equitable.

“I know this is New Jersey, and people get up that we’re the No. 1 schools in the country,” Ruiz (D-Essex) continued. “And we still have 130,000 families not connected to the internet? That’s a shame.”

Exact numbers not available

The exact number of families without the needed technology and the connectivity is tough to pinpoint, as the department itself hasn’t surveyed districts since early April, and even then, those numbers were suspect.

At that time, districts reported 89,000 families were without reliable internet connectivity at home, and 136,000 needed devices like Chromebooks or iPads — both those numbers were only slight improvements over the previous month. But the survey included only about 520 districts, and the figures were self-reported.

Repollet promised Ruiz and others that he would send out another survey to districts this week that would hopefully update the information on technology needs. As he tried to assure the committee that districts were making progress, he said he was confident that “ninety percent of districts would be up and running in terms of one-to-one devices” by September.

That statement by the commissioner spurred Ruiz even more.

“Saying that you’re going to encourage them, and saying we will have ninety percent by September, that to me as the chairman of the education committee is wholeheartedly unacceptable,” she said.

“I know the onus doesn’t fall completely on the Department of Education and that it happens collectively with districts,” Ruiz said. “But if we have to figure out a legislative way or an executive way or we have to sanction districts for not following this, we have to go above and beyond. We have to have one hundred percent up and running by September.”

Other hot-button issues

Technology was not the only contentious issue during the 90-minute hearing. Repollet was grilled on a number of related matters that he said his department was still working through to develop guidance.

An immediate one was summer schools and extended-year programs, for both of which Repollet said guidance is forthcoming. But he did hint that they would almost surely be in the form of virtual instruction, except maybe in the case of one-on-one services for those with special needs, such as occupational therapy.

He said full DOE guidance on reopening schools in the fall was likely a couple of weeks from being finalized and sent to the governor’s office and state Department of Health for review.

Repollet said that guidance would likely include a range of options for schools, from “creative scheduling” to new rules for school athletics, from different seating for school busing to new protocol for school nurses.

Another pressing issue is how to move teacher candidates coming out of preparation programs into the classroom without the requisite student teaching and assessments. Repollet said the state’s lawyers are reviewing recommendations for that process to assess what is permissible.

The response was a frequent one, as Repollet and other administration officials said a broad range of state guidances would be coming soon.

Also a frequent response, Ruiz said the guidance couldn’t come soon enough.

“Whatever it is, I think people want to hear it sooner than later so they can appropriately plan,” Ruiz said. “I know a lot of districts are putting [alternative] plans together, but they also don’t want to go out and buy PPE for 180 days if in fact that won’t happen.”