More than seven months after schools closed in March, and as coronavirus cases are rising again in New Jersey, the state Department of Education still does not have a solid handle on how many students lack access to the internet or devices on which to learn remotely.
“We are working to collect updated info on the digital divide,” Mike Yaple, a DOE spokesperson, said in an email. Asked for a “ballpark figure” or an estimate on how many students are still struggling to connect, Yaple could not produce one and said the data could take “a few days, a week, or a few weeks,” to compile.
Tracy Munford, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email Friday that the DOE “has compiled data submitted by school districts and is currently reviewing the data to ensure accuracy.”
The state reported in June that more than 358,000 students needed devices. Since then, some districts have taken it upon themselves and placed massive orders for laptops and Chromebooks, assuming reimbursements will come. Local philanthropists and businesses have also made donations to get students online.
It remains unclear how well this patchwork of solutions has worked.
Now, the New Jersey School Boards Association is calling on the DOE — under the new leadership of acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan — to produce documentation showing what the state has done to try and close the divide.
In its latest report, the NJSBA surveyed school officials and interviewed local board of education members and superintendents and found that as of July, nearly a quarter of the superintendents who responded said 16 percent or more of their students lacked internet access. Some said they did not have enough time to develop and implement their reopening plans accordingly.
Among other recommendations, the association is urging the DOE to make public a status report detailing how $54 million in “Bridging the Digital Divide” grants and related philanthropic contributions announced in July have been spent and used by schools.
POLITICO has attempted to obtain information on the grants through a public records request but was told the “application and review process is still ongoing.”
The association also recommends the Department of Education develop a statewide report on what students learned during the shutdown, a strategic plan to address learning loss, a report on the experience of New Jersey’s 246,693 special education students during the shutdown and a program to improve online learning.
The school boards association report — and months of conversations with teachers, superintendents and lawmakers — has revealed a foggy picture of what exactly the state has done to help get kids connected.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the most vocal critic of the DOE and the Murphy administration’s approach to handling the digital divide and remote learning, said in an interview last month that “it’s been a complete debacle.”
“I know everybody was hoping for a best-case scenario but