Almost all Newark students now have laptops, district says, but tech challenges remain

Getting devices into the hands of students is only the first step in bridging the digital divide. Remote access and even out-of-warranty gear can make distance learning a distant prospect
Credit: Nathan W. Armes/Chalkbeat
More than 98% of Newark Public Schools students now have devices for remote learning, an official said this week.

Nearly every student in the Newark school system now has a device for online learning, a district official said Wednesday — a significant achievement in a city where thousands of students lacked laptops, and funding constraints and shipment delays have complicated efforts to equip students for virtual learning.

More than 98% of the district’s roughly 37,000 students now have access to a laptop or tablet, the official said. That’s a marked improvement from March, when nearly 30% of students needed devices for virtual learning after classrooms closed. In order to get students online, the district has given out more than 16,000 new and used laptops since the spring, according to data obtained through a public records request.

“The Newark Board of Education is very proud of the efforts that they’ve put forward in ensuring that every student has a device and has internet access,” Edwin Mendez, the district’s attendance director, said during an online presentation Wednesday.

The pandemic has cast a harsh light on the so-called digital divide, in which 7 million households nationwide lack computers and 17 million lack high-speed internet — a figure that includes one in three Black, Hispanic, and American Indian families, according to an analysis of 2018 census data. In Newark, where an estimated one in five households did not have smartphones or computers, thousands of students initially had no way to access online assignments after the pandemic shuttered schools this spring.

Bridging digital divide just a beginning

Six months later, Newark’s efforts mean that most students now have the devices necessary for remote learning, which the district says will continue at least through early November. Yet obstacles remain.

Almost half the devices the district distributed are used and many have expired warranties, which could cause problems if they malfunction or are damaged, Superintendent Roger León said last week. Some families have reported issues with the used laptops, including difficulty charging them, broken keyboards and programs that freeze or won’t load.

León said the district has ordered 6,500 additional new devices but most have not arrived due to a global laptop shortage, which is creating delays for schools across the country.

Paying for them has also been a challenge. Newark was ineligible for a state technology grant because, according to the state, Newark received enough federal coronavirus-relief money to cover the cost of student laptops. But Newark officials say the roughly $18 million in federal aid was insufficient to pay for thousands of devices along with the many other pandemic-related expenses the district incurred, including face masks, air filters, sanitizing supplies and tutoring to mitigate learning loss caused by the school closures.

As a result, Newark, which did not have laptops for every student prior to the pandemic due to years of inadequate state funding, has only been able to provide devices to fewer than half of students, according to the district data obtained by Chalkbeat. The remaining students have had to take online classes on computers their families already owned or ones their parents bought this year after schools ran out of loaner laptops.

“Newark would have been in a worse situation,” León said this summer, “if in fact we would have had to provide one-to-one technology at the houses of every single one of our students.”

Thousands of new devices purchased

In March, the pandemic put a sudden stop to in-person learning, forcing students to learn from home. Several weeks later, the district said it needed nearly 10,400 low-cost Chromebooks and 100 iPads so students without personal devices could participate in online learning, according to a state survey conducted in mid-April. 

In the meantime, schools raced to distribute whatever laptops they had on hand. But many students still had to complete paper assignments, share computers with siblings or use cellphones to type out essays and attend video classes. 

Since then, the district has purchased 9,000 new devices for students and received 648 donated devices, according to the district data that Chalkbeat requested in July and received this month.

Shamonique Jones said her three children at Louise A. Spencer School received laptops this spring.

“We’re blessed — they made sure all three of my kids got laptops,” Jones said last month, though she added that her daughter who is starting kindergarten had yet to receive a device. In the meantime, Jones bought a set of phonics DVDs for her to watch. “I’ll see if they’re going to give the baby a laptop.”

Stranded without remote access

Students across New Jersey were stranded without devices for remote learning this spring. 

In June, districts said they needed more than 350,000 laptops and tablets for students, according to a state survey that includes replacement devices and some districts that plan to provide each student with a device whether or not they have one at home. While the survey did not ask about students’ race, Black and Hispanic households in New Jersey are far more likely than white or Asian families to lack computers or high-speed internet. 

After vetoing an earlier bill to pay for school laptops because of “indeterminate costs,” Gov. Phil Murphy launched a $54 million technology grant program in July using state and federal funds. District eligibility was based on their reported device needs and how much federal pandemic-relief money they previously received. The state’s formula assumes that districts spent at least 25% of their pandemic aid and any leftover federal funds intended for low-income students on technology.

Newark applied for $2.5 million in grant money to purchase 6,600 devices and wireless hotspots for students, but it received none because the state determined Newark’s federal aid should have been sufficient. District officials say the federal money is inadequate.

“The federal funds did not cover the cost of technology,” said Newark Public Schools spokesperson Nancy Deering.

Questioning state’s grant formula

Danielle Farrie, research director of the Newark-based Education Law Center, questioned the state’s grant formula. She said chronically underfunded districts such as Newark might have had to spend more of their federal aid on building upgrades needed to reopen, leaving them less left over for technology. Regardless, the state should find a way to cover any district’s remaining device needs, she added.

“Let’s get a device in every kid’s hand,” she said, “and not leave it up to districts to figure out how they’re going to come up with the means.”

State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) has also been critical of the state; she recently admonished the interim education commissioner for failing to provide an updated tally of students without devices and called the limited funding for technology and school-reopening costs “shameful.” This week, Ruiz called for a $311 million increase in school funding.

A promise not to cut school funding

Despite the severe budget strain caused by the pandemic, Murphy has promised not to reduce school funding. The state also set aside $100 million of its federal pandemic-relief money for K-12 schools, in addition to the technology grants.

“The Murphy Administration has taken significant steps to close the digital divide in our public schools,” state spokesperson Alyana Alfaro said in a statement. Noting that some districts have faced laptop shipment delays due to the national backlog, she said students can still learn remotely while they wait for devices.

“It is important to note that virtual learning is not the only model for remote learning,” she said.