NJ Must Address Digital Divide
The State of New Jersey’s continuing failure to eliminate the digital divide for an estimated 230,000 public school students violates their right to a thorough and efficient education guaranteed under the State Constitution.
In an August 15 letter to Governor Phil Murphy, the Attorney General and legislative leaders, ELC is calling for the State to take immediate steps to provide the internet connectivity, devices and other resources now essential for students to receive instruction through remote, digital means during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The technology for remote learning – sufficient, reliable internet connectivity, computer devices, and other supports – are no longer supplementary to the delivery of a thorough and efficient education,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “These technology resources are now an essential element of a public education, and the State is constitutionally obligated to make certain the requisite tools are provided to all students.”
In the letter to State officials, ELC underscores absence of public data from the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) on the location, scope and causes of the digital divide, including the numbers of students unable to receive instruction online and the specific resource deficits impeding remote learning, such as no internet access, computer devices, or other supports needed to effectively deliver education to students at home.
ELC also notes that while the NJDOE recognizes that remote learning is essential to educate students in the pandemic, it has done little more than issue guidance urging districts to “strive” to make “best efforts” in providing technology for remote instruction to students lacking such access. ELC also notes the NJDOE has asked districts to “plan” to provide computers and internet connectivity to students in need, but has left it to districts to do so without necessary resources, critical supports and adequate funding. The NJDOE response also relies on the ability of families to afford computers or pay for private internet service when this technology is essential for students to have access to education altogether.
“There is no doubt of the State’s constitutional obligation to provide all students a through and efficient education is absolute,” said Mr. Sciarra. “The State also cannot simply pass off to districts the responsibility to provide resources essential to education. And for the foreseeable future, those resources now include internet connectivity and computers so students can continue their education at home.”
In addition to publishing relevant data to pinpoint the digital divide, ELC is seeking immediate action by the NJDOE and relevant state agencies, including:
- Launch a statewide program of cooperative purchasing of computer devices to end the current “free for all” with districts competing with each other for contracts with computer manufacturers and vendors;
- Require internet provide companies to submit a plan to connect all students at no cost to those in need, including a “bulk rate” for services to be purchased by the State at substantially reduced cost and establishing community hot-spots in where students can access instruction online in a safe environment; and
- Assess district needs for software, professional development for teachers, and other supports required for stable and continuous remote learning for students, then collaborate with higher education, vendors and other service providers to target training and supports where needed.
- These steps are required for the State to fulfill the unequivocal constitutional mandate to provide a thorough and efficient education to all students. They will also ensure access to education not contingent on circumstances outside students’ control, including whether families can afford to pay for internet service, or reside in a building or neighborhood wired for such service, or are in a district in a queue with other districts awaiting delivery of computer devices.
In the pandemic, remote learning has become a central feature of our public education system, and the resources to connect all students to that system are now essential to effectuate their right to a free public education as guaranteed under the New Jersey Constitution.
NJDOE also recognizes the “technology divide” among students but advises “any district that faces a device or connectivity shortage” to address “how the district plans to provide devices and/or connectivity to students that need them” in their school reopening plans. Road Back, p.75. Finally, while districts have received federal emergency funds for expenditures related to COVID-19 impacts, the NJDOE has provided no data or information to evaluate whether the one-time federal funds are sufficient for districts to significantly reduce or eliminate the digital divide for all students.
Related Story: ACLU -NJ AND ELC CALL FOR STATE ACTION ON POLICE IN SCHOOLS:
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