Officials call it a longstanding dilemma that the coronavirus exposed. Though New Jersey schools were ordered closed and students were forced to learn remotely because of the pandemic, tens of thousands of young residents — many from low-income households — didn‘t have a device or internet access at home to participate in online classes.
Now, the Garden State is seeking to bridge this so-called digital divide.
Gov. Phil Murphy and state lawmakers on Thursday announced a $115 million plan to make sure all New Jersey students have online access and devices to learn at home, using a mixture federal funds, philanthropic donations, and state coronavirus relief money.
Officials say the need is immediate, noting that even if many schools do physically reopen this fall, some will likely offer a hybrid of in-person and remote classes, while other students may continue to learn from home completely.
Officials say the initiative will also ensure students have access to this technology even when the pandemic is over.
“We know that in many communities, the majority of students and educators were able to virtually connect every day,” Murphy said during a public event in which officials unveiled the plan at Madison Avenue School in Irvington. “But when it comes to educating our kids, I think we can all agree that words like ‘many’ and ‘most’ are simply not good enough.”
Murphy said nearly half of the $115 million price tag to close the gap will be covered through federal funds already set aside for school districts.
That, he said, leaves a $54 million hole the state plans to fill in three ways:
- The New Jersey Economic Development Authority will seek donations from businesses and philanthropic groups.
- The state will set up a one-time $10 million formula grant using federal coronavirus CARES Act money for New Jersey’s public school districts to buy digital devices and internet connectivity for students who need it. Districts must apply for the funds to the state Department of Education.
- The state will then make up to $44 million from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund available to public schools and $6 million to private schools to cover the rest of the funding. Murphy’s administration said the goal is to “exhaust” philanthropic help and federal funding first because of the fiscal strain the pandemic has placed on the state budget.
The announcement comes on the same day the New Jersey Legislature approved Murphy’s plan to allow the state to borrow up to nearly $10 billion to help fill what’s expected to be a massive gap in the state budget because of lost tax revenue due to the pandemic. The governor signed it into law later in the day.
But Murphy and lawmakers defended using this money for digital educational tools.
“The greatest equalizer in the world is an education,” state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said Thursday. “And it’s a shame that children should be denied that opportunity. … These are tough times, and there’s not a lot of money. But this is critically important.”
New Jersey closed schools March 18 as COVID-19 spread quickly, and the state’s 1.4 million students learned remotely through the end of the school year in June.
Some districts used all-online assignments and video conferences. Others printed thousands of worksheets because they could not guarantee online access for students.
Murphy said the state Department of Education estimated about 230,000 students were immediately at a disadvantage because of a lack of technology or trusted internet connection. Even though many districts helped plug the gap, the department estimated last month that 90,000 students were still without access.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said this had always been a problem, but the pandemic “uncovered the ugly truth.”
“Let’s equip every child with the resources they need,” Ruiz said Thursday. “It’s 2020. It’ll be 2021 soon. What is the problem with each one of our students having access to a computer so that they can learn? It is the most extraordinary investment.”
Then-state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollett said last month that about 90% of the state’s school districts would likely to be able to provide a device and wireless access for every student if school does not physically reopen in the fall.
Thursday’s news comes as the debate continues over whether students should physically return to school in the fall as COVID-19 lingers.
Murphy has said the plan is for schools to reopen with restrictions. It’s up to each district in the state to come up with their own reopening plans. But the governor last week left open the possibility of continuing remote learning if officials deem in-person classes unsafe.