Roughly 100,000 New Jersey students still lack internet access and even more need a device to log on for school work. With remote learning lasting through at least June, millions of dollars in federal emergency funds could help narrow that “digital divide.”

Education Law Center has urged Gov. Phil Murphy to issue clear guidance to local school districts about using the $300 million in federal emergency funds earmarked for education under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Education Law Center Executive Director David Sciarra said while there is a "laundry list" of eligible uses, Murphy should narrow the uses of the funding to fixing the lack of internet connectivity, securing devices for students to use and the lack of consistent online learning platforms for students, as well as staff support.

Sciarra said without making those top priorities, thousands of the most vulnerable students are at risk for upwards of four months of "learning loss" — when they have been without live instruction and are at serious disadvantage whenever schools do return to in-person classroom settings.

As of April 24, about 89,088 students across New Jersey reported they still could not access the internet at home (excluding access via smartphones), according to state Department of Education spokesman Mike Yaple.

At the same time, there were active requests from school districts for 108,363 Chromebooks and 27,342 iPads or other tablets, Yaple said.

Saafir Jenkins, a parent leader and Chief Public Affairs Officer of Newark Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said there is an issue of equity, as there are uneven approaches between schools and classrooms within the same district.

Some students have reported not receiving any live instruction two months since school went remote under the governor's executive order.

Jenkins said his organization has heard from parents dealing with PDF files that require being printed out in order to complete school work, while it remains unclear how such assignments would eventually be graded. He said there is a clear need for a consistent online platform for both instruction and submission of work.

Among potential school district uses allowed by the CARES Act:

  • Purchase of educational technology, including hardware, software and connectivity
  • Purchase of sanitization and cleaning supplies
  • Mental health supports
  • Plan and implement activities related to summer learning and supplemental after-school programs, including providing online learning during the summer months to address the needs of student subgroups
  • Planning and coordinating the distribution of meals to eligible students
  • Provide principals and other school leaders with the resources necessary to address the needs of their individual schools
  • Activities to address the unique needs of student subgroups

The CARES Act will distribute the money based on the Title I formula, which means districts with greater need and higher poverty concentrations will receive more funding.

The Education Law Center's analysis of district allocation of CARES Act funds shows $567 per pupil in New Jersey’s highest poverty districts compared to $36 per student in the state's wealthiest districts. The state average is $283 per pupil.

The lack of internet connectivity has decreased since late March, Yaple said, when an earlier DOE survey reported more than 110,000 students could not access the internet at home.

Even before the federal emergency funds slated for New Jersey, several districts have found other ways of narrowing the divide.

Comcast has been offering free access to its network for 60 days, after which the cost is $9.99/month, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association. Individual households can sign up online. Additionally, Comcast has opened all of its hotspots to anyone in need. Students may check to see if they are in the range of Xfinity WiFi hotspots by visiting www.xfinity.com/wifi.

Similiarly, Altice has been offering Altice Advantage Internet solution for free for 60 days to any new customer household within their footprint, aimed at helping students who do not have home internet access.

The Camden City School District used $400,000 in donations from the Camden Education Fund, the Campbell Soup Company and Townsend Press to purchase 1,550 Chromebooks and licensing fees for the Google platform, as reported by TAP Into Camden. The report said devices were distributed to students at Camden High School, Woodrow Wilson High School, Big Picture Learning Academy, Brimm Medical Arts, Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy and Pride Academy.

Newark began providing laptops to some students after a recent survey by the district found 7,000 Newark students lacked internet-equipped devices.

Back in April, the Paterson public school district planned to hand out 7,000 Chromebook laptop computers to all district high school students. As reported by Paterson Press, schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer said she also wanted to provide laptops to Paterson’s middle school students, but at that time the district was about 4,000 laptops short of that goal.

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