40K N.J. students still lack computer or internet for virtual school

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Eight months after the coronavirus pandemic first closed New Jersey schools, about 40,000 students still lack either a computer or internet connection to participate in online classes, Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday.

Those students represent less than 3% of the state’s public school population, Murphy said. But despite New Jersey’s progress from the spring, when more than 300,000 students lacked access, the state is still struggling to close its digital divide.

“40,000 students is still 40,000 students too many,” Murphy said during his regular coronavirus briefing in Trenton.

The updated number comes as the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is forcing more schools to temporarily close by the day. Some of the state’s largest school districts, including Newark Public Schools, have yet to reopen for in-person instruction this school year with no clear reopening date in sight.

Murphy said nearly 70% of school districts reported that they have resolved their students’ device and connectivity needs. Many of the districts with remaining needs said supply chain or delivery delays were a problem.

“While this data definitely shows positive movement, we are not going to let up on closing the remaining gap,” Murphy said.

The Democratic governor has been criticized by some advocates for his initial inaction to support students unable to participate in virtual school.

The state at first refused to pay for laptops for low-income children, waiting four months after schools shuttered to announce a statewide plan to help finance them.

Murphy balked at what he said would be an “indeterminate, unbudgeted cost” for state-funded laptops. The initiative he eventually supported cost $115 million, about about 0.3% of the state’s roughly $40 billion budget.

In the absence of laptops or internet access, many students were forced to use cell phones or sit outside of schools to access the building’s wireless network. An NJ Advance Media investigation found some students simply stopped participating in online school and were promoted to the next grade level anyway.

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Adam Clark may be reached at [email protected] Have a news tip or a story idea about New Jersey schools? Send it here.

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