Last month, New Jersey announced it had bridged the “digital divide” by providing 231,000 students statewide with hot spots and devices to connect to the internet for school as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed classrooms from in-person to virtual.
Ellen Hemple was shocked to hear the news.
“It’s a sore subject for us, it really is,” said Hemple, a Lower Alloways Creek Township art teacher who uses cellular service and Verizon hot spots to connect. She and her neighbors have never had a decent internet connection. “I feel like I’m living in the Dark Ages.”
Typically, the term “digital divide” is used to describe the educational barriers created by the lack of technology and internet connectivity by some students and their families, but educational experts and advocates say it’s much more far-reaching than K-12 students, and addressing it will take much more than providing equipment.
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It also will require addressing the infrastructure and the divides that exist in society, affecting less affluent families, like having safe, comfortable and quiet places to learn, and whether there are adults at home who can help students with technological issues or classwork questions.
“If solving the digital divide were about providing everyone with a device and a pipe to the internet, it would have been really easily solved and solved a long time ago,” said Jim Brown, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University-Camden and director of the Digital Studies Center. He said his own students had major connectivity issues, and they were not evenly distributed.
Although the district where Hemple teaches has been back in person for a majority of the time since September, on the days Hemple has to teach from home, she often experiences slow service, causing her audio or video not to work, which can be detrimental to her and her students, she said.
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The digital divide’s impact on educational attainment is still being measured, but educators and legislators across New Jersey are expecting the worst, which is why the state invested more than $50 million in bridging the divide over the past year.
“Remote or virtual learning access is just one factor impacting student learning during the ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency,” Department of Education spokesman Shaheed Morris said. “The department’s evaluation of student learning is not limited to or solely focused on the impact of the digital divide; the department has and will continue to incorporate multiple strategies to measure student learning during this unprecedented time and to help districts and students accelerate learning in response.”
Information on those strategies is forthcoming, Morris said.
While affordability is the primary barrier to access to internet, those living in rural areas were less likely than those in urban areas to have access by 69% to 98%, according to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission report.
Darrell Edmonds, founder of the local youth empowerment organization Friday is Tie Day, said he knows college students in rural areas of Atlantic County without internet at home who would sit outside the library in their cars this year to complete homework assignments. Some students, he said, were using their cellphones to type their college papers.
Pleasantville, a poor, urban district with a majority minority population, has been all-virtual since last March and will not return to the classroom this year as the district attempts to tackle mold issues in the buildings.
Students in the district were provided laptops and hot spots, but 10-year-old Kristina Session, a fourth-grade student at the South Main Street School, said it was much easier when the students were in the classroom.
“The work got a little harder and the teacher wasn’t next to us trying to help us,” she said, adding there are more distractions now for students who are at home, like background noise.
Kristina now attends the Future Leaders program in Pleasantville during the school day, where staff members make sure students have a good internet connection and are provided meals and additional support.
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Rena Graves, 52, of Pleasantville, was watching her four grandchildren during the day but decided to send them to Future Leaders when their school became a challenge due to internet connectivity.
“It was horrible, it was slow. I had to up my internet to the highest speed because all four of them were on at the same time,” Graves said, adding that in addition to the technological challenge, it also was a financial burden.
Area residents said that while governments, private businesses like Comcast and nonprofits are taking positive steps to address the inequity created by the digital divide, there is much more to do to not only ensure students receive an equitable education but to make sure the entire region can grow educationally and economically.
Pedro Santana, a former longtime Stockton University professor and assistant vice president for student affairs, said the region and the state should learn from this situation, challenge pre-existing concepts and create new frameworks for success.
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“We have an opportunity as a region to attract investors who want to invest in Atlantic County and bring us up into that next level of participation in the economy,” he said.
Brown applauded the $100 billion investment into broadband access within the Biden administration’s approximately $2 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, which the White House says will bring reliable broadband to “more than 35% of rural Americans who lack access to broadband at minimally acceptable speeds.”
He said the line between what is digital and what is not is blurred due to how we function as a society that is reliant upon digital technology, so he is optimistic about that kind of thinking in government — the internet as a public utility.
Brown said instead of calling it a digital divide, it should be called digital inequities and then addressing those issues would lead to results that also address wage and wealth inequality, child care and more.
Contact Claire Lowe: 609-272-7251