NJ providing all students with technology to close the digital divide

It was a constant fight for the computer, says fifth grade student Maiholy Peña, who suddenly switched to homeschooling this spring without the technology at home to do her work. It left her scrambling to finish on time. She and her sister are among the thousands of kids in New Jersey at risk of falling into a learning gap called the digital divide.

“Sometimes I wanted to study, my sister wanted to read books and my mother wanted to study English. So it was really stressful,” Peña said.

Newark’s West Side High School Principal Akbar Cook told Senior Correspondent David Cruz on ChatBox that it’s an all too familiar scene for his students.

“I have kids that have multiple siblings in one home and have one device and have no wifi. So then Altice, which is Optimum Online, they said they would give the kids the wifi, but it was just a band-aid because it only was for a certain amount of days. So here you have kids with no means of communicating with their teachers. Even the cell phones, they didn’t even have cell phones. It was just so bad,” he said.

And as districts prepare fall plans, Gov. Phil Murphy’s now giving parents the option to keep kids home for remote learning only. But parents who may want to do this for health reasons, may also not be able due to lack of technology. Recently, the Legislature and governor agreed to fund an effort to close the divide for the roughly 230,000 students in need, many of them in urban districts.

“We found the money to provide universal devices and internet access to every single kid going to school in this state. So we’re not able to do something that we weren’t literally able to say, or talk about, or do a month ago, and that’s a huge difference,” Murphy said at Friday’s coronavirus news briefing. “Had we not found that money to address the device gap, the digital divide, the internet connectivity gap, I don’t think we’d be saying what we’re saying today because we would not be able to say that this is universally available.”

Funding will support the purchase of devices and internet connectivity for students. The governor projects the total cost for all students in need to be about $115 million, and a large portion will come from federal funding through the CARES Act.

“This is a great first step. We don’t know what September is going to hold; we don’t know what will happen. We do know that many schools will be going hybrid. Let’s equip every single child with the resources that they need. Let’s get ready for that family to be secure for the digital learning if it has to happen,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz on July 16.

Murphy is asking for philanthropic support to help fill funding gaps, and some organizations have already stepped up. The New Jersey Community Development Corporation raised $100,000 to distribute nearly 400 Chromebooks to kids in Paterson. Peña hasn’t received one yet, but hopes she’s next on the list.

“It will make a big difference because my mom will learn a lot of English because she has her own personal computer, and we’ll have our computer to connect every day and learn,” she said.