State will use $115 million to bridge ‘digital divide’ among students ahead of new school year

Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday unveiled his plans to address what he calls the “digital divide” among students ahead of the new school year.
The governor made the announcement Thursday at Madison Avenue Elementary School in Irvington. The plan will use about $115 million in federal funds, the state coronavirus relief fund and other private and corporate sources to ensure that students in need will be equipped with personal electronic device access and internet connectivity so that they can continue their lessons digitally and have access to the internet.
Murphy has stated that in-school lessons will resume in September but has given the option for a hybrid of virtual and in-person lessons depending on the school district and the infection rates of COVID-19. But he says that Thursday’s announcement will have lasting effects.
“It is our intention to go back into classrooms…It’s not just about September 2020. This divide had existed too long. This divide must be deleted immediately, and with today’s announcement, it will be,” Murphy said.
While the issue of the “digital divide” is not a new one, it became more of a focus once the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and forced students to attend their classes virtually.
Carlos Lejnieks is the CEO of Big Brother Big Sister of Essex, Hudson and Union Counties. He has been working to close the divide for years and says that he applauds the governor’s announcement. But he says that while digital access is important, there is another type of connection that needs to be addressed.
“You may have technology at home, bit if it isn’t turned on, if you are distracted form a desire to be connected to the academics because life is happening around you in your home, that’s equally important” he says.
Lejnieks says that many at-risk kids have parents who are essential workers and are not home to encourage online learning or to keep an eye on the social and emotional well-being of the children. He says that this is where guidance counselors, social workers and mentors need to come in.
“We see it in New Jersey and throughout the country. We are about to see one of the biggest dropout rates of a generation unless we start addressing the structural issues today,” Lejnieks says. “We have the answer – more individualized attention. We need to act on it today, to prepare for the next school year.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters is looking for mentors and volunteers to be paired with children who may need guidance. More information about their programs can be found on the organization’s website.