More than half of all students in New Jersey are starting the school year remotely, at least part time. And despite a state-funded effort to close the digital divide, a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds some still don’t have the technology they need.
Pam Williams of Neptune Township still remembers the chaos that ensued when her six kids where thrust into virtual learning last March. The school district only provided two Chromebooks. She bought a third and juggled the schedule as best she could.
“I made sure the older kids got up first because I knew they could complete the work on their own,” Williams recalls. “And once they were done, I would help the smaller kids.”
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Three kids trying to stream video at once while she tried to videoconference for work also put a strain on her Wi-Fi. But things are improved this year. Williams sprung for a faster internet package, and the school district procured more Chromebooks. But not everyone is so lucky.
Etelvina Vail’s daughter, Noeni, attends the Morris School District’s universal pre-K. She attends class in person twice a week. Without a digital device, she has no way to participate the other three days.
“I don’t know what to do with her or if she’ll just do nothing,” Vail says, in Spanish. “If I don’t get a computer, she can’t study.”
The Murphy administration estimated 230,000 students lacked devices needed for remote learning, and set aside $60 million to close the digital divide. Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer says districts that purchase devices can apply for reimbursement.
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But in a written statement, Morris Schools Superintendent Mackey Prendergast tells Kane In Your Corner, “We are going to provide laptops for the district Pre-K students” at Lafayette Learning Center, Alfred Vail Elementary School, and Hillcrest Elementary School).” The problem is the district assigns most pre-K students to partner schools, like the one at the Morristown Neighborhood House, which Noeni attends. Those students are on their own, even though the district, not parents, determines their placement.
New Jersey Department of Education spokesman Michael Yaple says the state doesn’t know how many kids can’t properly participate in school this fall because “the Department doesn’t count individual students who lack a device or connectivity. Rather, the Department estimated how many students need a device/connectivity by using multiple sources: numbers of low-income students in each district and data from surveys of school districts.”
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Yaple nonetheless insists, “The DOE plans to continue tracking districts’ efforts throughout the 2020-2021 school year.”
Some say the state’s efforts don’t go far enough. They include David Sciarra of the Education Law Center, who argues that in a remote learning environment, devices and internet access should be provided to every student statewide at no cost.
“We don’t tell school districts ‘Oh, you know, only provide teachers to the low-income kids’,” Sciarrra says. “No! You’ve got to provide a teacher for everyone. It’s the same thing.”
Providing devices may also be just the first step in closing the digital divide. Virtual summer school recently ended in New York City and, according to one report, 23% of students never logged on.
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Carlos Lejieks, CEO of Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union Counties, says “We really need to be in tune with additional supports for the children that may be signaling things. You know, you were a little sunken in today in class. Or, we noticed that you logged in, but you didn’t show up, you stepped out. Or frankly, the answer that we saw with a lot of our kids, we noticed that you didn’t log in at all.”
As for students who lack adequate internet connectivity, Kane In Your Corner contacted the major New Jersey internet service providers and asked what programs they offer students, low-income families or both.
Altice USA says it partners with school districts, local governments and community organizations to provide connectivity options to students and also offers its low-cost Altice Advantage Internet, which provides high-speed broadband connectivity for $14.99 per month to qualifying families.
Charter says it has connected nearly 450,000 students, teachers, and their families to broadband service for 60 days at no charge and has forgiven $85 million in customers’ overdue balances. The company also says its Spectrum Internet Assist is priced at $14.99 a month.
Comcast says it offers a low-cost Internet Essentials program for low-income families, has waived back-due debt and offers special deals on internet service to educators and university students.
Verizon says it is has announced deeply discounted internet connectivity agreements with school districts in 38 states, including New Jersey.
Note: Altice USA is the parent company of News 12 New Jersey.