Bridging the digital divide in Trenton’s school system amid Covid-19

By Janique Burke. The Coronavirus pandemic has uncovered many issues within our society over the past year, as we were forced to hunker down inside and adhere to social distancing guidelines. Businesses and schools all over Trenton, New Jersey, as well as across the country, closed in the process. While we were all trying to figure out our new normal, our homes became our sanctuaries. Concerns about at-home conditions arose within our society while work-from-home and virtual learning became “a thing.” Two things that have come to light at this time are that digital devices and Internet service are luxuries for some and not a commonality in all homes, as low-income communities bear the brunt.

By Janique Burke

Picture Source : Depositphotos

The Coronavirus pandemic has uncoveredmany issues within our society over the past year, as we were forced to hunker down inside and adhere to social distancing guidelines. Businesses and schools all over Trenton, New Jersey, as well as across the country, closed in the process. While we were all trying to figure out our new normal, our homes became our sanctuaries. Concerns about at-home conditions arose within our society while work-from-home and virtual learning became “a thing.” Two things that have come to light at this time are that digital devices and Internet service are luxuries for some and not a commonality in all homes, as low-income communities bear the brunt. 

According to a report on NJ.Gov, Trenton school systems provided students with laptop commuters back in April during the start of the statewide stay-at-home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in November 2020, there were still 40,000 students in the state of New Jersey without devices or Internet service, which left them unable to participate in online learning. 

Since spring, more than 300,000 students have been taken care of digitally. On February 3rd, Governor Phil Murphy provided an update on the current divide, confirming via Twitter that, “413 students statewide currently lack devices or connectivity for remote learning–down from 231,000 over the summer.”

“Districts who provide Internet and
Wi-Fi hotspots still tend to have issues in regards to the quality of the Internet,” says 5th-grade educator from Middlesex County, Aquaus Kelley. He notes that having access to the Internet is the number one issue since there are some students who don’t even have that.

However, he explains that the quality of the Internet service is also an issue, which in turn affects instruction. But, as an educator, Kelley credits communication as a solution.

He uses the app Talking Points to communicate with parents, which is helpful when communicating with parents who speak different languages.  He states that his school district is also good about providing locations for students to take in damaged or malfunctioned computers to be fixed. In addition to students dealing with digital complications, teachers have to also be more accommodating to those experiencing difficulties. Kelley provides his students with the opportunity to turn in assignments at a later date. “I use Google Classroom and [students] can always access that. So even if their Internet is down for a day or two, they can still access the assignment…and I can update their grade accordingly.”

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The Pew Research Center states: “Roughly two-thirds of students attending suburban schools (65%) say they use the Internet for homework every day or almost every day, compared with 58% who attend schools in cities, 50% of those who attend in rural areas and 44% of those attending schools in towns.” These percentages should be enough for teachers to make some adjustments to their teaching methods. Having other available options outside of online resources is necessary. Some schools also leave hard copies of assignments available outside of their school, which is helpful for those lacking proper Internet service or computers. The absence of these adjustments can leave these students at a disadvantage and eventually unwilling to participate in remote classes. “Once remote instruction began, a particular student was M.I.A.,” explains Kelley, regarding his experience. “They were not logging in for one reason or another. I don’t know the particular details, but this circumstance has created that kind of condition.” Rand.com’s research noted that teachers of lower income students in high poverty areas reported a low-participation rate during virtual learning. “The pandemic just ripped it wide open. It was education’s worst-kept secret, and now it’s out in the limelight and somehow still able to be ignored,” says Noelle Ellerson Ng, of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, explained to U.S. News.

A report done by The National telecommunication stated that more than 17% of teenagers are stressed academically as a result of being unable to finish homework assignments due to the lack of a reliable Internet connection. It’s obvious that not having suitable Internet access can severely affect a student’s learning, in addition to other in-home conditions. There have been community-based programs created as a result of the pandemic to assist families. For instance, the Outside of School Program created by the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) of Mercer County operates remote learning assistance centers.

These centers provide parents with a safe place to send their children to complete their virtual lessons while they head back to work. Program Director of the CYO of South Broad Street Center, John Soss, expresses the importance of the center as being the only option for families at this time. “Allowing the students to socialize with other children was very important. Having to be stuck inside and away from friends for such a long time was very detrimental to their well-being. However, the most important need that we resolve is childcare. Without our program, many of the parents of our students would be unable to earn an income…But with our program operating, we can help parents with the essentials. Until all of the schools reopen, this is the only option for many families.” Previously, offering after-school services for approximately 100 students, today from the hours of 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, the CYO offers reliable Internet, counselors and complimentary breakfast, lunch and snacks to 34 students ages 6 through 13 years old. The cost of the program is $330 per month, with options of reduced days and hours at a lower cost. Childcare Connection vouchers are also accepted. By providing a safe environment, where social distancing practices are enforced and masks are worn, CYO is a viable option for working parents.

Picture Source:  Depositphotos

Soss credits the school districts with the actions they have taken to distribute laptops and noting that they are doing their best during this unusual situation. “As this stretched into the current school year, I was very impressed with the distribution of laptops,” he explains. “While our program makes up a very small percentage of the students in our area, my experience would indicate that the schools have done a good job in what at the time seemed like an impossible task.” When asked about possible reasons for the widening digital divide within Trenton, Soss believes the gap between high-and low-income families is the culprit. “Keeping up with the latest technological innovations is not cheap. I will see some kids with smartphones or tablets in our program, but they were the exception, not the rule.” Similar to Mr. Kelley, Soss also agrees that most families lack suitable Internet service at home, making it difficult to stream live videos. He’s also deduced that these times are exposing an extreme lack in this country that is negatively affecting students who otherwise would excel at school, while those who are more fortunate are outshining them as a result of their economic statuses. “Before we were required to spend so much time at home, a hard-working and dedicated student could still succeed in school. But now a student’s academic success is not determined by their grit or intelligence, but by whether or not their family can afford these digital necessities. In America, we like to think that if you work hard enough, anything is possible. This pandemic is revealing that this mindset is only part true,” says Soss.

Trenton schools have not been able to return to face-to-face learning as of yet, while Jersey City and Newark schools plan to end remote learning in April. However, in January, Alfonso Q. Llano, Trenton’s interim school’s superintendent, told NJ Advance Media that through the hybrid learning reopening plan, he hopes to get students back into school by May though there is a chance that remote learning will remain in place until the end of the school year. So, the biggest question is: How can this digital divide be narrowed? Is it even possible to narrow the divide at this point? Teachers adjusting their teaching methods and being flexible with assignment due dates are some options. Providing computers also helps. In the state of Jackson, Michigan, a district sends out buses with Wi-Fi antennas on them throughout the city in parks and near apartment complexes to provide students with service during the school day. Some see Congress as an answer, noting the need for more targeted support and funding to narrow the divide. The CARES and HEROES Acts did little to help the schools. The most recent $900 Billion pandemic relief bill provided $82 Billion with $54 Billion being allotted for K-12 public schools. Though the new relief provided much more than the $13.5 Billion received in last spring’s relief package, many schools are still finding it difficult to cope as the funding was far and few in between. Our children deserve more than that. Congress needs to provide more to specific communities heavily affected by job losses and business closures due to the pandemic. They need to work harder to close this divide now and for the future to ensure that students have what it takes to measure up to the standards in this digital world that we live in.

This story was produced thanks to a reporting grant facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and funded by New Jersey Children’s Foundation.

CYO of Mercer County: 

CYO – South Broad Street Center 
920 South Broad Street, Trenton, NJ 08611

In order to enroll, parents can visit the building  or call CYO’s Family Worker Carmen at (609) 396-8383 x10 or email her at [email protected]

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