New Jersey education officials still don’t know the depth of the state’s digital divide

The state reported in June that more than 358,000 students needed devices. Since then, some districts have taken it over and have placed massive orders for laptops and Chromebooks, assuming refunds will come. Philanthropists and local businesses also donated to bring students online.

It’s still unclear how well this patchwork of solutions worked.

Now the New Jersey School Boards Association is calling on the DOE – under the new leadership of Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan – to produce documentation showing what the state has done to try to bridge the gap.

In its latest report, the NJSBA interviewed school officials and interviewed members of the local education board and superintendents and found that in July, nearly a quarter of superintendents who responded said that 16% or more of their students did not have Internet access. Some said they had not had enough time to develop and implement their reopening plans accordingly.

Among other recommendations, the association urges the DOE to release a status report detailing how the $ 54 million in “Bridging the Digital Divide” grants and related philanthropic contributions announced in July have been spent and used by schools.

POLITICO attempted to obtain information on the grants through a public documents request, but was told that “the application and review process is still ongoing.”

The association also recommends that the Department of Education develop a statewide report on what students learned during the shutdown, a strategic plan to address learning loss, a report on the experience of 246,693 New Jersey special education students during the shutdown and a program to enhance online learning. .

The school boards association report – and months of conversations with teachers, superintendents and lawmakers – revealed a hazy picture of exactly what the state has done to help kids connect.

State Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the most vocal critic of the DOE and the Murphy’s administration’s approach to dealing with the digital divide and distance learning, said in an interview last month that “this has been a complete debacle.”

“I know everyone was hoping for the best of times, but what we should have done was make a consistent decision at all levels that set basic parameters so that districts could focus on one plan. “said Ruiz. “At the time they received advice [on remote learning] I think it was July, and then it just kept changing.

Ruiz, along with school leaders and advocates, have spent the spring and summer advocating with the department for some form of standardized basic guidelines outlining minimum health standards for reopening, for assistance in l purchasing technology, training teachers in distance learning and even requiring a nurse in every school building. None of this came to pass.

Ruiz told a Senate Budget Committee hearing last month that at every step of the way, the ministry waited until the last minute to find out when things should be implemented. By the time the guidelines were released, she said, it was “too late”.

Despite widespread media coverage of the digital divide starting in March and lawmakers denouncing DOE officials during the June legislative hearings, it was not until July 16 that Governor Phil Murphy announced his three-pronged plan to fight against the problem by relying on philanthropic donations. and federal funds.

The governor had previously conditionally vetoed legislation for Ruiz’s “Bridging the Digital Divide in Schools” grant program that would have forced the state to buy laptops for needy students. the state did not have the means.

Now, with more than 111 coronavirus cases linked to 25 school outbreaks statewide, districts are once again rethinking their plans to reopen. Some of the state’s largest districts, including Newark and Paterson, have already announced plans to extend distance learning until at least January.

Marie Blistan, president of the powerful New Jersey Education Association, one of Murphy’s most powerful political allies, said the summer could have been spent better preparing teachers for the demands of online learning.

“It was something we predicted. … We knew there would be a lot more training that would be needed, ”Blistan said in an interview. “We have already heard from members whose districts are struggling to make ends meet. … What they found in the first few days is that it’s almost impossible and they spend more time trying to plug the kids in at home, than they are in the room, that they are up to the task, let alone trying to look after the children at school.

Sarah Mulhern Gross, a high school teacher in Lincroft, County Monmouth, said educators needed to work to prepare for distance learning as the state and districts were concerned about planning for all possible eventualities of reopening.

“We as a state for some reason wandered off the side of less advice for schools when more advice was needed,” she said.

“I spent my summer doing a lot of professional development in my spare time,” said Mulhern Gross, noting that teachers don’t get paid during the summer. “I have coworkers who have spent thousands of dollars buying their own tools. … All the teachers I know beg or crowdfund or buy theirs. ”


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