Parents lined up at schools in Dover, Haledon and Camden last week to pick up computer devices for their children, as New Jersey makes strides to close a digital divide that has strained families and schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
About 35,000 students across the state still lack computer devices or internet connections at home, a big improvement from the 231,000 tallied in August, according to a New Jersey Department of Education survey this month.
But while the number is narrowing, it doesn’t give a full picture of remote-learning challenges, say advocates and school leaders.
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“We’re in a good place when it comes to devices,” said Norma Fernandez, deputy superintendent of Jersey City’s schools. “But the digital divide does go beyond access to Wi-Fi and access to devices. It’s having the support at home to use those devices. You can’t purchase that support.”
Most students are learning online from home at least part time this fall, as schools have closed or limited class sizes to reduce risks of coronavirus exposure. New Jersey, like other states, initially struggled to secure funding for technology, then scrambled to get devices amid massive demand and backlogs.
This month, some districts are receiving orders that they placed in July and August. In Jersey City, officials have given out Chromebook laptops to all K-12 students and are planning for preschool distribution. Among 28,000 children, about half needed devices, the district said.
In Camden, which New Jersey identified as one of the districts most in need of technology, all orders were received and families have picked up devices in the past two weeks, officials said.
And in Dover, officials of the Morris County town handed out 1,400 Chromebooks in grades 1 through 6 last week. The district has iPads for those in kindergarten and preschool but is waiting for covers and keyboards that go with them. At home, students have been able to connect to the internet through community hot spots, Superintendent James McLaughlin said.
Other districts, including East Orange, Lakewood and Clark Township, still had thousands of students in need of access, according to the state survey. Without devices, pupils have been sharing with siblings or parents. Some are using mobile phones to watch and complete lessons.
Even where there is computer access, problems remain due to a lack of high-quality broadband access, said Shennell McCloud, CEO of Project Ready, a Newark-based nonprofit. When multiple people are using the internet in one home, students can experience slowed or dropped service, she said.
Yolanda Johnson, whose daughter is in 11th grade in Newark, founded an advocacy group called Parents Educating Parents. She frequently hears from families that can’t afford Wi-Fi or have had choppy service.
“Just because you have internet doesn’t mean you have reliable internet,” she said.
In addition to a high-quality connection, schools need to give students appropriate devices, said Vikki Katz, a Rutgers University associate professor of communication. Tablets such as iPads are OK for young children but aren’t right for research projects required of older students, Katz said. Schools shouldn’t count smartphones as devices either, she said.
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The availability of technical support, or someone who can troubleshoot computer problems, is also critical to online learning, said Katz, whose research includes the use of technology in low-income and immigrant families.
“I’m very glad they are closing the gap, but it’s disheartening that it’s November and we still aren’t there yet, when this started in March,” she said of state efforts.
New Jersey, where 2.5% of students still need access, is hardly alone in struggling to close the gap. In New York City, some 60,000 students still don’t have computers, even as the city switches to all-remote learning, Katz said.
The CARES Act, the federal coronavirus stimulus package passed last spring, included more than $13 billion in emergency funding for K-12 schools. But the federal response to technology needs was badly bungled, she said.
Instead of a coordinated national response, schools were left to compete over limited supplies; wealthier districts were able to buy first, while less financially stable ones had to wait for federal funding to make purchases. At the same time, the federal government should have been pushing internet service providers to expand high-speed service, Katz said.
“We should have had some level of cooperation instead of competition,” she said. “It would have made a big difference.”
Closing the digital divide hasn’t meant closing the learning gap in less wealthy communities — a persistent problem that is being made worse by the pandemic, said Vivian Cox Fraser, president of the Urban League of Essex County.
“COVID-19 is highlighting disparities that already existed,” she said. “If you didn’t have adequate space in a home for a child to study quietly before, imagine in a pandemic, where all are home at the same time living in close quarters.”
Lower-income families also have less access to resources like tutoring, and their children are likely to fall further behind affluent white peers, Fraser said. “The impacts on education will be lifelong.”
Disadvantaged students are also losing in-person special services like tutoring, therapies and counseling that can help them to succeed in school, said Project Ready’s McCloud.
In Jersey City, Fernandez said the pandemic “uncovered things we always knew about, but that now are very obvious.”
“While some children have parental support from a parent who works at home and has tech skills to help kids, not all have that,” she said. “Some have parents who are essential workers. Some have grandparents who are babysitting and who do not always have the knowledge to help.
“Getting the devices was the easy part. When it comes to the support, it will take longer to build capacity with the families,” Fernandez said.
In Dover, McLaughlin said it was a plus that schools got federal aid to buy computers for all students. That should serve to improve online learning and have lasting benefits for incorporating technology into classrooms, the superintendent said.
But children who need more hands-on learning, including English language learners and those with disabilities, are missing important lessons, he said. Others are in home situations where they care for younger siblings.
“When remote learning is done, we are going to need to address the unevenness of the learning experience and where proficiencies are and where we have to make up the gaps,” he said.
Hannan Adely is an education and diversity reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Most NJ students have computer access, but that won’t close divide, advocates say