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

By Carly Sitrin
·5 min read

More than seven months after schools closed in March, and as coronavirus cases are rising again in New Jersey, the state Department of Education still does not have a solid handle on how many students lack access to the internet or devices on which to learn remotely.

“We are working to collect updated info on the digital divide,” Mike Yaple, a DOE spokesperson, said in an email. Asked for a “ballpark figure” or an estimate on how many students are still struggling to connect, Yaple could not produce one and said the data could take “a few days, a week, or a few weeks,” to compile.

Tracy Munford, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email Friday that the DOE “has compiled data submitted by school districts and is currently reviewing the data to ensure accuracy.”

The state reported in June that more than 358,000 students needed devices. Since then, some districts have taken it upon themselves and placed massive orders for laptops and Chromebooks, assuming reimbursements will come. Local philanthropists and businesses have also made donations to get students online.

It remains unclear how well this patchwork of solutions has 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 and close the divide.

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

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

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

The association also recommends 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 New Jersey’s 246,693 special education students during the shutdown and a program to improve online learning.

The school boards association report — and months of conversations with teachers, superintendents and lawmakers — has revealed a foggy picture of what exactly the state has done to help get kids connected.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the most vocal critic of the DOE and the Murphy administration’s approach to handling the digital divide and remote learning, said in an interview last month that “it’s been a complete debacle.”

“I know everybody was hoping for a best-case scenario but what we should’ve done was just made a uniform decision across the board that set baseline parameters so districts could focus on one plan,” Ruiz said. “By the time they got any guidance [on remote learning] I think it was July, then it kept changing.”

Ruiz, along with school leaders and advocates, spent the spring and summer pleading with the department for some form of standardized baseline guidance outlining minimum health standards for reopening, for help purchasing technology, training for teachers in remote learning and even requiring a nurse in every school building. None of that came.

Ruiz said at a Senate budget committee hearing last month that at every step of the way, the department waited until the last minute for when things would need to be put into action. By the time guidance was issued, she said, it was “all too late.”

Despite widespread news coverage of the digital divide starting in March, and lawmakers excoriating DOE officials during legislative hearings in June, it wasn’t until July 16 that Gov. Phil Murphy announced his three-pronged plan to combat the problem by relying on philanthropic donations and federal funds.

The governor had already conditionally vetoed Ruiz’s “Bridging the Digital Divide in Schools” grant program legislation that would have forced the state to buy laptops for needy students, In his veto message, Murphy said the program came with an “indeterminate unbudgeted cost” he said the state couldn’t afford.

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

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

“This was something we predicted. ... We knew there was going to be a lot more training that was gonna be needed,” Blistan said in an interview. “We’ve heard from some members already where some districts are scrambling to make ends meet. ... What they have found in the first few days is that it's next to impossible and they’re spending more time trying to get the kids at home hooked up, that they're in the room, that they're on task, let alone trying to attend to the kids in the school.”

Sarah Mulhern Gross, a high school teacher in Lincroft, Monmouth County, said educators had to work to prepare themselves for remote learning because the state and districts were preoccupied with planning for every possible eventuality of reopening.

“We as a state, for whatever reason, erred on the side of less guidance for schools when more guidance was needed,” she said.

“I did spend my summer doing a lot of professional development on my own time,” Mulhern Gross said, noting teachers aren’t paid during the summer. “I have colleagues who’ve spent thousands of dollars buying their own tools. … Every teacher I know is either begging or crowdfunding or buying their own.“