Rayahn Alston’s Paterson classroom was replaced with worksheets that taught him “nothing.”
Tariq Ellis’ Newark classroom was replaced with a Chromebook he had to share with his sister, a district-issued device that blocked the very YouTube videos he was supposed to watch.
And Niasia, Michael and Makiyah Bellamy were homeless in March when the coronavirus pandemic swept across New Jersey. So the siblings got no education at all.
“My kids basically suffered from that point until now,” said LaToya Sylvester, the mother of Niasia and her twin siblings, who lived in Irvington before they were forced to stay with an acquaintance in East Orange. “They lost out on, you might as well say, a complete school year because of this.”
From the instant New Jersey schools closed their doors last spring, state officials knew thousands of students would have no way to log on for virtual school, especially in the state’s poorest districts.
But six months later — after low-income students, children of color and other disadvantaged kids disproportionately suffered — the Garden State still hasn’t closed its digital divide, a symptom of greater inequity that threatens to harm thousands of students again this fall, advocates say.
“I am really worried about what happens if this continues,” said Kaleena Berryman, director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University-Newark. “I know there are thousands of children who are going to absolutely fall behind.”
The statewide school closures sent home an estimated 350,000 students without either a device or internet access, hitting low-income families especially hard. Meanwhile, the chronically underfunded school districts they attend scrambled to launch online instruction without the financial resources to support it.
Other students received a district device to share with their siblings. One family had as many as five children sharing one laptop, Berryman said. And even those with computers often had no reliable internet access, forcing them to park outside schools or find other creative solutions to participate in virtual class.
“Two high school students called into a history class from their job at a fast food chain, where they listened to the lesson and served customers at the same time,” said Rebecca Reynolds, a Rutgers University professor conducting a statewide research study on digital inequality during the pandemic.
“It should not be acceptable to anybody in this state or anywhere in America,” Gov. Phil Murphy said of the digital divide. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media
The state says it has a solution: a $115 million program to help schools buy technology. But it has offered no update on how many schools have closed that gap.
“It should not be acceptable to anybody in this state or anywhere in America,” Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday about the digital divide.
“We inherited something that was not acceptable and has been obviously overwhelmingly exacerbated by homeschool remote learning, a pandemic. But I don’t think in that context any state is doing as much as we are doing right now to close that, and it ain’t going to be overnight.”
But classrooms will sit empty this fall in Newark, Paterson, Trenton and other districts that serve some of the state’s most disadvantaged children. Instead, their schools are following remote instruction plans that rely on laptops and internet connectivity to teach kids.
The odds that all those students can log on and participate are slim, despite districts’ efforts, said Vikki Katz, a Rutgers University professor.
“I think we are starting off the school year on our back foot,” said Katz, who studies children growing up in low-income and immigrant families and their relationship with technology. “We should have been in a better place.”
Tariq Ellis tried his best with remote learning, but the experience “wasn’t good,” he said. John Jones | For NJ Advance Media
Yvette Alston-Johnson stood in line for 30 minutes at the height of the pandemic.
It wasn’t for food. It wasn’t to see a doctor. It was to pick up her grandchildren’s worksheets.
When it became clear the statewide school closures would linger beyond two weeks, Paterson Public Schools set up 22 locations so the families of nearly 20,000 students could pick up a new set of review packets.
“I think the whole thing was a damn mess,” Alston-Johnson said. “I just think they were so ill-prepared. I think all urban schools were ill-prepared.”
The result? Alston-Johnson’s 11 grandchildren — including Rayahn — suffered through a spring of minimal learning, she said.
With no statewide solution for the digital divide, each of New Jersey’s 584 districts — along with scores of charter schools — had to figure out a plan on their own. The struggles of Paterson underscore the futility of asking cash-strapped districts to take on such a burden, advocates say.
“This is laying bare the inequities that have existed for a long time,” said Susan Butterfield, president of the Passaic County Education Association.
Districts that assigned students worksheets were “failing those kids,” Butterfield said.
Students who can’t get online remain teachers’ greatest concern about remote education, said Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association.
Only 1,400 of New Jersey’s more than 2,500 public schools reported having a 1:1 device-to-student ratio in 2018-19, according to the most recent state data. Districts scrambled to close that gap last spring.
Mount Olive schools spent $4,600 to provide wireless access for its students. Trenton ordered 5,000 notebook computers. Yet 40% of its students still didn’t log on for virtual learning in the initial weeks of remote instruction.
A teacher in one low-income district reported about a third of her students failed to log in most days, Reynolds said.
Paterson was supposed to have computers for every student, said Eileen Shafer, the district’s superintendent. When she took the job in 2017, she launched a multi-year plan to achieve that goal, she said.
In the first year, the district bought Chromebooks for high school students. But in the second year, the budget was so tight Shafer had to lay off teachers. Buying computers was no longer an option.
“The paper packets were a nightmare because you had close to 20,000 students using paper packets, having to pick them up every 10 days, drop them off every 10 days,” Shafer said. “During the height of the pandemic.”
Dr. Gerald Glisson, a principal at Eastside High School in Paterson, in October 2019. He died in May from COVID-19. Paterson Public Schools
Paterson was hit hard, with more than 8,000 cases of COVID-19. Mayor Andre Sayegh tested positive in April. Gerald Glisson, a principal at Paterson’s Eastside High School, died in May from COVID-19.
“We clearly remember a parent calling because there were six people in the family and everybody had the virus except the younger children, and they weren’t old enough to walk and pick up the packet,” Shafer said.
A district staff member delivered the worksheets, she said. But nobody graded them — or any of the packets Paterson students completed. To do so, the district would have needed to pay $800,000 for a company to scan the documents and upload them into an online system for teachers.
“We made a decision at that point that it was more important — because the virus wasn’t going away — it was more important to get more devices,” Shafer said.
Paterson schools will be all-remote until at least Nov. 1, though the district didn’t secure the laptops it needed until late August.
Synchronous learning will take place daily for each subject, replacing the packets that Rayahn, an honors student who wants to be a lawyer, said were difficult to understand.
“If they give us work that is eighth-grade work and we haven’t been taught it, I would be very scared,” Rayahn said. “I don’t know how we are going to do that.”
Told that one of her students said he didn’t learn during the pandemic, Shafer said she hopes it is an anomaly.
“Even one is too many,” she said.
Samaiyah Davis, 10, had to share a laptop with her brother last spring to do her schoolwork remotely. John Jones | For NJ Advance Media
When Yvonne Davis went to Newark’s George Washington Carver School to pick up computers in March, she told the staff she had two children attending the school.
She walked away with one laptop.
Her son Tariq, 14, and daughter Samaiyah, 10, had to share the computer.
“If you have got more than one child, what are you supposed to do?” said Davis, a home health aide.
Tariq, who also missed his special education services, said he tried his best, but the experience “wasn’t good.”
“If they cancel school, it’s going to be hard for us again,” he said in July.
Newark schools remain all-remote until mid-November, but say they now have enough computers for every student. But supplying a device still does not guarantee success.
Many disadvantaged children were hindered by shaky internet access and subpar computers, Berryman said. Some kids had to use old computers or even their smartphones in the spring.
In Beverly City, one family came to the school every day to sit in an outside pavilion, just to connect to the district’s wifi, Superintendent Elizabeth Giacobbe said.
Some internet providers granted free access to students, but getting it was often easier said than done.
Cielo Marrero, a high school student at North Star Academy in Newark, said she used her phone as a hotspot. When it crashed, her family tried to sign up for free internet.
“My mom, she had to sit on a call for like four hours to be able to get it together,” Marrero, 16, said in April.
That burden should not be on families, said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a non-profit that advocates for disadvantaged kids. He suggests the state require internet providers to offer free access to students.
“It is an essential resource,” Sciarra said. “It needs to be declared an essential resource.”
But the state also needs to identify students’ technology needs to ensure they are positioned to learn, he said. Districts reported their survey results to the state, but the number of students without access to virtual instruction has been difficult to determine.
“The state has failed in collecting the kind of information you need in order to identify where these kids are, what they need, what barriers there are in internet access, why they are not connected,” Sciarra said.
Chris Cerf, a former state education commissioner under Gov. Chris Christie, said the pandemic brought unprecedented circumstances the state could not foresee. But moving forward, “there is no excuse” not to know if students have access to computers or the internet.
“We should not be starting with a blank slate of ignorance,” said Cerf, a former superintendent of Newark Public Schools. “That should not be something that needs to be found out. That should be something that everybody knows.”
Chris Cerf during the grand opening of the Newark public schools central office on Broad Street in 2018 when he was the superintendent. Alexandra Pais | For NJ Advance
LaToya Sylvester was homeless when schools closed.
Sylvester and her five youngest children — ages 11 to 17 — left Irvington to stay at a residence in East Orange.
Her son Jamar, 17, continued virtual learning at his Newark public school, where he was trying to finish his senior year.
Sylvester enrolled her daughter Lateisha, 13, in an East Orange school. But she was told she needed to go to a different office within the district to enroll her other three children, who are in special education programs, she said.
When she returned days later with an affidavit to prove her residence, the office was closed indefinitely because of the pandemic.
“I reached out to the young lady,” said Sylvester, a mother of nine. “I didn’t get a response back. Nothing. Nothing at all.”
For the rest of the school year, Jamar and Lateisha shared a laptop issued by East Orange to complete their school work.
Niasia, 14, and twins Michael and Makiyah, 11, did nothing.
Sylvester was still struggling to enroll them as of last week because of issues proving her residency, she said. But Abdulsaleem Hasan, who became East Orange’s new superintendent this summer, told NJ Advance Media he will ensure that the children get enrolled.
Sylvester’s experience speaks to the reality that remote schooling requires more than just a computer and internet access, Berryman said.
There are students living in crowded apartments with no quiet space to learn, she said. Students whose parents were in the hospital. Students who are constantly moving around just to find their next meal.
Virtual learning isn’t going to be a top priority when you’re just trying to get by, she said.
“One thing I noticed was there were so many grant programs and really robust support programs for businesses,” Berryman said. “Where was the robust call for support for education? For families or parents or young people?”
Most low-income districts remain closed to start the school year.
Newark doesn’t plan to reopen until the second marking period. Paterson students will be home until at least November. Camden students won’t see a classroom until February.
“It is not a coincidence that certain districts are in a better position to reopen, at least partially, in-person, safely,” Katz said. “It’s the schools that have the most resources.”
Alston-Johnson grew so frustrated as the remote school year dragged on, she wanted to cry, she said. She knows each day is valuable.
“I had a teacher who used to say to me, if you miss one day, you miss something that could help change your life,” she said.
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Adam Clark may be reached at email@example.com.