FLEMINGTON, NJ - Students previously without access to the Internet have been granted the assistance needed to connect and learn virtually at home in the Flemington-Raritan Regional School District.

The board of education unanimously approved a $27,793 emergency purchase order with Verizon Wireless for 50 jetpacks and the necessary Internet service at a special meeting April 13. A total of 47 students, as announced at the special meeting, would be the immediate benefactors of this district-subsidized Internet access at home for virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic.  

The purchase will have a greater impact for these students, now that Gov. Phil Murphy has announced that public school students will not be returning to buildings for in-person instruction for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. This extends the period of virtual learning from the original deadline of May 15 to June 23 in the district.  

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The board initially tabled the approval of the purchase order in a 5-4 vote on April 6, following members expressing concerns about the terms of the contract with Verizon, specifically the dollar figure and the length (12 months). Members asked the administration to attempt to renegotiate because of what appeared at the time to be a short-term need for Internet access at home during the pandemic.  

Administration said at the emergency meeting that they attempted to renegotiate the contract, but were unsuccessful, as previously thought would be the case by assistant superintendent Dan Bland.

“Verizon, at this time, is not willing to renegotiate on the price they originally gave to us,” said Superintendent Dr. Kari McGann. “It’s the same price that they’ve given to everybody else and given to us in the past. However, there are conversations that are continuing, but the conversations are on a bigger, broader basis than just the 50 jet packs that Flemington-Raritan is looking to purchase.”

When asked about the discussion of the length of the contract, McGann said, “Verizon is not willing to negotiate that. The only thing they’ll do, as part of the agreement, is that they allow us to extend the 12 months to 18 months, (meaning) we can (discontinue the service) for three months at a time, but we would still end up needing to comply with the 12-month agreement.”  

This approval allows the district “to quickly address this emergency need so that our students, especially our most vulnerable learners, do not fall behind academically as a result of prolonged school closures,” McGann said later.    

“I’m supportive of this item this evening, as I shared with the superintendent earlier today,” said President Tim Bart, who was one of the five members who voted to originally table the purchase. “The connectivity was never an issue, it was just the terms of the contract. The district will continue forward to try and find the best deals possible and to try to give people the connectivity that is the lowest cost.”

These 47 students previously had been receiving their education by staying connected with classroom teachers, predominantly thorough telephone calls, as well as through materials that had been distributed to families through various means.
However, McGann said, “It’s not the same as kids participating in Seesaw or Google Classroom, or being able to have online meetings with their classmates.”    

The district has sifted through other options to connect these students to the Internet.

“Some of the comments I’ve received from the community is ‘What about Comcast? What about T-Mobile? They have these hotspots,” McGann said. “We’ve been connecting students to those and those are working for some students. I have about 47 (students) where the Comcast or the T-Mobile hotspots are not working for a variety of reasons.”

McGann said she is not just looking at her own district though. She is continuing to advocate at a state and national level for all students who are without access to the Internet or the suitable devices needed to connect.   

“Online learning offers students a chance to work with their teachers and remain connected to their school communities, but, nationwide, far too many homes lack access to the high-speed broadband connections students, and teachers need,” McGann said later. “Extended school closures will negatively impact learning across all communities. Still, students that lack broadband access - disproportionately rural and low-income learners - will be especially hard hit by this historic emergency.”

Given the “urgent” need to ensure that all displaced students and teachers have access to broadband, McGann has written to Congressman Tom Malinowski (D-7), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and United States President Donald Trump to encourage them to provide a least $2 billion in emergency funding and regulatory flexibility for the E-rate program.

“Dedicated additional E-rate funding is needed to ensure that schools can quickly and securely provide all unconnected students with the hardware, software and connections needed to deliver online learning,” she wrote. “I have asked for support from our representatives to have conversations with Internet providers to lessen the contract requirements during the pandemic.  I have made phone calls, emailed others and connected with Google leaders. However, this conversation and possibly long-term solution does not support our students today.”

McGann, one of the leaders in the STEM Ecosystems Initiative, also has joined numerous conference calls between local and state leadership, as well as executive leaders from Comcast and Verizon, to brainstorm solutions. She noted that one of her calls was focused around ideas and strategies about what can be done now and in the coming years to “connect the unconnected and close the digital divide.”
She said she spoke with representatives from around the United States, including Dr. Vint Cerf, of Google, who widely is known as the “Father of the Internet.”

There has been some progress in finding affordable solutions to address this “digital divide,” she said.

As later announced in the district’s monthly Parent & Community Newsletter, Verizon will be reducing the monthly access per line to the lowest amount available, $34.99 per month for the future. Verizon also agreed that the school district will be able to cancel 12-month contracts at any time.

Previously, with this purchase order approved last month, the service was being offered at $39.99 per month per device, and the district was locked into a contract where it was being charged for 12 months of usage, but was allowed to return any unused jet packs (boxed or unboxed) within 30 days of delivery.

“It’s important that our community knows that the board’s questions did result in savings, and I think that’s a very important point that Verizon Wireless did help us,” Bart said at the April 27 meeting. “I appreciate (Dr. McGann’s) work in leading that discussion.”