For students across the nation, the pandemic has highlighted what has been dubbed the “digital divide” – the technology gap experienced by those who either do not have access to the internet from home or do not have a device with which to connect to attend virtual classes.

To that end, N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration have been working to allocate federal funding to both public and nonpublic schools, as plans go forward for reopening both in-person and virtual classrooms.

Public school grants will come from the state’s federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. After those funds have been exhausted, Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) monies will be redirected, with $6 million available for nonpublic schools.

“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,” Gov. Murphy said. “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.” 

An estimated 230,000 students statewide were impacted by the digital divide when schools were closed to in-person instruction in March. Among them were students of Asbury Park’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. Though the school was able to distribute Chromebooks, one per family if needed, there was still a problem of connectivity.

“We began to get calls from parents saying, ‘I don’t have any more data,’” principal Theresa Craig said.

A local internet company stepped in to provide free-of-charge mobile hotspot service, allowing each computer to serve as a hotspot.

Now, the school is working to secure more computers, especially aging devices in need of replacement.

“We ordered 75 Chromebooks in November … but because of COVID-19, imports were shut down, so they never arrived,” Craig said. The school has placed an additional order for 100 Chromebooks with a national store chain.

Having funds available from the state for devices both in and out of the classroom will ultimately allow schools some budgetary breathing room.

“If I can get money from the state to help cover technology, then the rest of the school budget is less tight for things like sanitizing and PPE [personal protective equipment],” Craig noted.

Addressing the need for the Coronavirus Relief Fund monies, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said, “There are thousands of kids around the state who, after three months of virtual instruction, still do not have access to the internet or a tablet, preventing them from connecting with their teachers or interacting with materials.

“This use of funding, to connect every single New Jersey student to online learning by the time school starts in the fall, is critical to preventing further learning loss and ensuring we are prepared for what is to come in September and throughout the remainder of the school year.”