NJ Succeeds in Bridging the K-12 Digital Divide

As the state has shifted to distanced and hybrid learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Jersey Department of Education announced it has closed the K-12 digital divide by using roughly $60 million in Federal funding.

The department said that all public schools in the state are reporting that students have the technology needed to access their classrooms remotely.

“As of today, New Jersey’s digital divide is no more. It has been closed,” said Governor Phil Murphy. “Closing the digital divide wasn’t just about meeting the challenges of remote learning – it’s been about ensuring every student has the tools they need to excel in a 21st century educational environment. This is vitally important as more and more of our students return to in-person instruction – whether their schools are all in-person or are reopening to allow in-person classes on a hybrid schedule.”

Before the pandemic, a significant number of New Jersey K-12 students didn’t have access to the devices or internet connectivity needed for online instruction. The state has worked over the last year to ensure access to both.

“Their laptops are not just for home instruction,” Gov. Murphy said. “They’re just as critical as any textbook.”

Beginning this time last year, schools across the country had to transition from all in-person learning to fully remote practically overnight. Throughout the 2020-2021 school year, schools have bounced between fully remote and hybrid learning, depending on the state’s preference and the rate of COVID-19 spread.

In July of 2020, the state used $54 million in Federal funding from the CARES Act to launch the Digital Divide Grant to close the divide in New Jersey public schools, and allocated an additional $6 million in CARES Act funding for nonpublic schools. At that point, the state estimated that approximately 231,000 of the state’s nearly 1.4 million public school students needed either devices, internet connectivity, or both. By January 2021, that number dropped to 7,717.

At that point, schools weren’t facing an issue with funding, but rather in the device supply chain. Schools across the country were faced with a finite supply of devices, but a global surge in demand, all during a time when many factories were decreasing output capacity to ensure social distancing.

“New Jersey educators and school leaders did an amazing job of pivoting to remote instruction during the pandemic,” said Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, the state’s acting commissioner of education. “However, our education system was not designed with a remote-instruction model in mind, and our schools found themselves competing with schools across the globe for devices to deliver online learning to students.”

Despite the obstacles, Allen-McMillan praised the state’s response.

“These facts did not derail us,” she said. “Instead, we found ways to connect students to their classrooms and now can proudly say that we have bridged the digital divide.”

As of March 3, data from school districts and nonpublic schools indicate that all students have both the devices and internet connectivity they need.

“While schools have met challenges they never envisioned, we know there will be a renewed demand for new devices that will be needed for the next school year, and we want to help districts prepare,” said Allen-McMillan. “We remain committed to working with schools to ensure that students continue to have access to the technology they need to connect with their classroom.”

Kate Polit
About Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs