By Erica Carrington
Imagine waking up one morning and life as you knew it no longer existed. Imagine not being able to protect yourself or your loved ones because you’re not even sure what it is you are seeking protection from. Imagine trying to figure out a “story” that keeps changing its ending. Imagine trying to prepare for what you can barely comprehend. Now imagine trying to help your child manage all of this before, after, and during their adolescent years.
These uncertain times add a multitude of concerns for everyone, especially the educators and students of the New Jersey school system. As if attempting to restructure learning to fit a virtual mold overnight wasn’t enough, there was also the issue of the “digital divide.” This describes the gap between those students who have technology access, whether it is the internet or computer, and those who do not. This particular issue wasn’t brought on by the pandemic, it was most certainly magnified by it.
Being both a parent to a child in the New Jersey school system and an educator within the system, I understand the significance of doing everything possible to ensure the bridging of this gap. From my parent lens, I see the need for more advocacy for the student. Even if my child did not have the necessary technology, I would find a way to ensure that they did. Parents may not always be aware of what their rights are within the school system, however, that shouldn’t hinder their efforts. They should take the time to improve their knowledge of the educational system(s) where their children are learning. By the same token, the school systems should always be willing to welcome the advocacy and keep the lines of communication open. From my educator lens, the need for more advocacy for the student is also of high priority.
“Educators need not be apprehensive about speaking up for the student.”
It is in everyone’s best interest to be a voice for those students who may not be able to use their own. Educators should make it a habit of sharing the disparities they witness with those in power. They should be at the forefront of leading the committees that develop and put into practice the necessary steps to bring about change.
This digital divide has definitely been harmful to areas with concentrated poverty. During the pandemic, there were homeless students who only recently received laptops from their school, which means they have lost a year’s worth of the live instruction given to those who had the technology access. Furthermore, those New Jersey school systems that include primarily black and brown children need to be properly funded. For every student enrolled, the average non-white school district receives $2,226 less than a white school district, according to a 2018 report by EdBuild, an organization that highlighted disparities in school funding. This digital divide spoke to the problem of inequity in education and school segregation.
New Jersey has ranked first in the country academically. Despite the state’s comparative strength nationally in educating low-income, African-American, and Latino students there is always room to do more for our children. In July of 2020, a $54 million Digital Divide Grant was created to close the digital divide in New Jersey public schools along with $6 million allocated in Coronavirus Relief Funds for grant funding to nonpublic schools. At the time it was estimated that approximately 231,000 of the state’s nearly 1.4 million public school students needed either devices, internet connectivity, or both. While the New Jersey Department of Education could ensure school districts had financial resources, officials reported that the major obstacle they faced involved supply-chain issues. Data reported by school districts and other entities as of March 3, 2021, indicates that the number of students lacking devices or connectivity has been reduced to zero.
There are still undeniably many disparities in educational quality between New Jersey’s suburban districts and its largely low-income, African-American, and Latino urban districts. Trenton, for instance, has a graduation rate of 68%, the bottom half out of the state average, which indicates though we closed one gap, there is still more work to be done to ensure an equitable school system.
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.