Students Still Face Gaps in Tech Needed for Remote Learning

With nearly all classes online, New Jersey is back to school but state unclear on how many currently lack needed tools
Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer

The school year is underway for much of New Jersey, with a vast majority of schools teaching at least some of the week remotely, and worries about the digital divide have hardly gone away.

And the divide may even be wider than previously reported.

The state’s top education official faced questions Wednesday at the state Board of Education’s meeting about how much the state has progressed in closing what has been a gaping gap in technology access at home.

The state provided a new report afterward indicating that as of June, more than 350,000 students — or a quarter of all enrolled — were without the necessary technology at home. The Murphy administration had previously said that the June survey found 230,000 students without the technology, but it appears from the report that was just low-income students. Either way, the state has not provided an updated count.

But interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer said Wednesday that the Murphy administration’s $54 million grant program to help districts purchase devices and other technology had proceeded this summer, as planned, and “most, almost all” of the applications from districts had been approved. The department also said more than $300 million in federal CARES Act funding was also being made available to districts for pandemic–related costs.

Some success in closing gap

The department only released some totals on Wednesday, but not how much money was granted or how many districts got assistance. Dehmer only said his department had heard from districts that the funding had helped close their needs.

“Districts have been able to continue their planning and purchases of devices and connectivity,” Dehmer said. “One thing that is very important is that as we rolled out this grant program, we didn’t look at just devices, whether it be laptop or something like that, but also looked at connectivity. If you have a laptop and can’t connect to the internet, that doesn’t get you to where you need to be.”

The number of districts relying on at-home technology is only growing, whether part of a “hybrid” model that also includes in-person instruction or solely remote learning.

At last count, Dehmer said 388 districts were thus far following a hybrid model, 238 were all-remote, and just 69 districts or charter schools were full-time in-person.

Advocates are watching closely

One party keeping a close eye has been the Education Law Center, the organization that has led the state’s Abbott v. Burke school equity lawsuits and last month put the Murphy administration on notice for not yet fully addressing the technology needs.

Almost all of the so-called Abbott districts, among the state’s neediest, have gone to all-remote models, at least to start.

“There has been no movement by the Murphy administration in seriously tackling this issue, starting with publishing accurate and up-to-date data on where the divide is most acute and the barriers causing the divide,” David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director, said in an email Wednesday.

“It also puts real urgency into the need for the Administration to take full responsibility for any student not having internet connectivity and a device — now essential for a public education,” he continued.

At the state board meeting, Dehmer acknowledged that needs still persist. “I’d like to say that everything is perfect on this,” Dehmer stated, adding there has been difficulty in getting necessary devices from overseas manufacturers.

The interim commissioner highlighted a link the state Department of Education released last week that is a “virtual learning toolkit” that provides information and resources for teachers, parents and students.

“This is an area that we are going to build throughout the school year,” Dehmer said. “We are going to keep that up. We’re not going to let off the gas on this.”

Board members queried the commissioner about how the state will keep track of progress districts are making, especially in remote instruction. Board member Mary Beth Berry, herself a public school teacher in Hunterdon County, said she was worried not only about the digital divide but also about students who had the devices and connectivity.

Querying lack of tech support

“Looking at these numbers, this is an awful lot of young people who are going to be on Zoom or whatever platform,” she said. “Are you working with companies? What system is in place if the system crashes?

“This is going to be how we are providing instruction, and do we have an infrastructure in place to make sure it all works?”

Dehmer said technology infrastructure in this pandemic has become a bigger issue than just for schools, but he said the toolkit should help provide some resources.

“That’s why it was so important to pull that together,” he said. “If this is not working (for families), who should they contact? And to help districts to devise those resources as well.”

The report provided Wednesday evening included a host of numbers from the June survey of more than 600 districts.

In addition to the student needs, it said that more than 40,000 staff members in more than 200 districts also needed devices at the time. It also noted that as of June, more than 540 districts had provided devices and other technology to at least some students, and more than 570,000 students in all — almost half of all students — had received some technology from their districts.