FLEMINGTON, NJ - When schools in New Jersey were closed for in-person instruction in March, the Department of Education estimated that more than 230,000 students across the state were impacted by the digital divide.
Based on surveys and low-income enrollment data, the DOE estimates that the cost to close the digital divide statewide is approximately $54 million.
In the Flemington-Raritan school district, officials have worked diligently to close that divide, providing jetpacks and devices to students.
The school board recently accepted a $105,076 grant, which will go toward the purchase of Chromebooks for students. The goal is to provide a device for each of the district’s nearly 3,000 students.
A New Jersey DOE Digital Divide Grant will help in those efforts.
In July, Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled plans to address unmet pre-kindergarten to 12th grade student technology needs in New Jersey schools.
“Efforts to ensure reliable internet connectivity and access to one-to-one digital devices are critical as we look ahead to the 2020-2021 school year and the reopening of schools, many of which are preparing reopening plans employing a hybrid schedule of both in-person and continued remote learning due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” the governor’s office wrote in a press release.
“One thing the 2019-2020 school year taught us is just how resilient and innovative our students and educators can be, particularly in times of crisis,” Murphy said in the July press release. “By taking these steps to close the digital divide and equip students in need with personal device access and internet connectivity, we can ensure that students continue to succeed in these unprecedented times.”
Superintendent Dr. Kari McGann said they are using the money to aid the students as much as possible.
“The district is using its digital divide grant money to ensure reliable Internet connectivity and access to one-to-one digital devices during the 2020-2021 school year,” McGann said. “The coronavirus and resulting school closures further magnified the need to support families’ technology needs.”
The board of education had previously approved a $27,793 emergency purchase order with Verizon Wireless for 50 jetpack mobile hotspots and the necessary internet service.
Through surveys, the Flemington-Raritan schools have been able to resolve much of the district’s Internet connectivity issues.
“In the spring, it was more of an issue,” said McGann, noting the transition to all remote learning made internet connectivity and devices a budgetary priority for the district.
And grants such as the Digital Divide Grant have been increasingly important as the district has had to move money into such things as personal protective equipment to open schools to students.
“They are important to us because we spent so much money as a district as far as bringing our children back, safety has to come first,” McGann said, noting that a program offering FEMA funds to reimburse school districts for its coronavirus response ended on Sept. 15.
“It’s not like the needs stop after Sept. 15, so grants like the one we received for technology, those are very important,” she added.