Faster, cheaper internet for NJ schools counters ‘digital divide’
A new, three-year contract for the administering of a long-standing program by the Educational Services Commission of New Jersey could stand to save schools in the Garden State more than 50% on internet access.
About half of school districts across the state, a mixture of public and private, have signed up to participate in the "New Jersey Digital Readiness for Learning Assessment Project" since its inception in 2014.
The 2021 contract reduces the average price for internet access by 29%, and boosts bandwidth by 47%, according to Kevin Dellicker, ESCNJ program coordinator and consultant.
"When you do the math and look at price per unit, which is our best measurement of value, we're looking at a 52% reduction in the price for internet access," he said.
Patrick Moran, ESCNJ school business administrator, said the initial aim of the program was to increase capacity for online state testing, but the remote learning and "digital divide" issues brought on by COVID-19 have magnified the need for more bandwidth, more speed and lower costs.
Those needs won't change once the pandemic is over, said Moran, adding that he would like to see an end to a homework gap, a cousin of the digital divide, typified in some cases by students sitting in their parents' cars in a school parking lot so they can use the wireless connection.
"You've got high schools that have the same ability as major universities now to do online research for their students, and that's not going anywhere but up," Moran said.
Dellicker said putting a dollar amount on the savings to school districts going forward is difficult, since the districts are in the process of signing up for services right now, a procedure that is federally subsidized and involves various vendors.
"We're not the vendors that are delivering the internet access and the telecommunication services," he said. "We depend on vendors to engage in this process and deliver the quality product at a reasonable price."
But he estimates over the next three years, total savings could approach $275 million in New Jersey.
"It's about enough money to keep 500 teachers in New Jersey classrooms," Dellicker said. "So there's a real tangible benefit."
The state Department of Education has played a "major role" in getting the ball rolling over the last six years, according to Moran, and these efforts are expected to reach 700,000 New Jersey students under the new contract.