NorthJersey.com's Hannan Adely and Ashley Balcerzak report
As New Jersey rushes into a mass experiment with online instruction thanks to the coronavirus, Michelle Polo-Thorpe worries that her students will be left behind.
“I have 30 students in my homeroom class and only 11 have a cellphone,” said Polo-Thorpe, a seventh-grade English teacher in Paterson. “We have many students who are new to the country. They don’t have access to a computer outside of school or the public library.”
Gov. Phil Murphy ordered all public schools in the state to close by Wednesday, shifting 1.4 million pupils to remote learning as New Jersey races to contain the virus. But the vast majority of schools had already shut their doors by the start of the week, with a mix of online learning and self-study taking hold in homes across the state.
While the health threat is undeniable, teachers and advocates worry that the crisis will worsen the existing education gap for low-income households, even as they take steps to try to accommodate students with paper packets or loans of electronic devices.
“It hasn’t been easy, and this health crisis presents us with a whole new set of challenges," Polo-Thorpe said. "But we’re going to continue to fight through it to make sure that our kids have the best possible education.”
The state has worked with districts to try to ease the impact of school closings, the governor said.
“Each district and each community has its own set of challenges and realities, and we will be guided not just by public health needs, but also ensuring the individual needs of those districts are being met,” Murphy said during a news conference. “We must take into account the significant educational and socioeconomic impacts which occur when schools are closed for extended periods.”
In New Jersey, an estimated 90% of households have a computer or smartphone and 84% have a broadband internet subscription, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. But that can vary widely among municipalities, age groups and income ranges; among households age 64 and under, the rate with internet access was 92%.
Overall, people who are elderly or poor or lack a high school diploma were least likely to have a computer or online access.
The state Department of Education did its own survey and found that 259,000 families don’t have access to computers, laptops or smartphones, Murphy said Friday.
NJ schools brace for remote learning
Local school leaders said the vast majority of families were prepared for remote instruction and that many teachers were already using online programs for classroom assignments. But they are working on ways to help students who aren’t equipped.
In Garfield, which has about 5,000 students, nearly 700 households responded to a technology surveylast week. Twenty-two said they lacked internet access at home, said technology supervisor Deborah Rigoglioso. But some of those individuals may have smartphones, which students can use to complete assignments, she added.
The Bergen County district inaugurated a “one-to-one” technology program this year, giving every student in grades 6 to 12 a laptop they could use in school and take home. Fifth-graders will also be allowed to take home computers they use in school. Younger students will get worksheets to complete at home, which will also be posted online.
“It’s the same thing we’ve been doing in the classroom. We’re just not physically in the same space,” said Nadia Kotsev-Azzolino, a seventh-grade social studies teacher who said she routinely assigns online work.
In Paterson, where more than a quarter of the city lives below the poverty level, technology is a major concern. About 22% of households don't own a computer, tablet or smartphone and 36% lack an internet subscription, according to 2019 census data.
Households with school-age children were more likely to have access, but many still are lacking, the data show. For that reason, planning for the closure has included a heavy amount of paper-based work, said Paul Brubaker, the district director of communications.
“Whenever possible, we will be using the district’s website and resources like Google Classroom to keep student instruction moving forward," he said. "But we will still need to make resources available on paper for many of our students."
Paterson gave students packets for home instruction on Monday that they can use while the district is closed until the end of the month. They must return the packets April 1 to get credit and to receive a grade for the days that schools are closed, the district said.
In some districts, superintendents said they were trying to address technology gaps by lending out computer equipment or devices that provide Wi-Fi connections, as well as relying on paper assignments.
Students doing work on paper can email or leave phone messages for teachers if they have questions, officials said. But those working online will be able to interact and collaborate with peers and teachers as they go through lessons.
Around the country, some internet providers have offered free or reduced-cost access for 60 days to low-income families.Others have pledged not to shut off service for unpaid bills and to waive late fees because of economic circumstances related to the pandemic.
On Saturday, Murphy said he had spoken to a private-sector provider “to try to aggressively embed hotspots in the communities around the state where we don’t have [internet] access.”
Murphy said schools where a significant percentage of students lack access should prepare at least a month of printed instruction material.
‘Social justice issue’
Child care will also be a major concern, said Johanna Calle, an immigrant advocate and Hackensack school board member. In households where parents have hourly-wage jobs and cannot work from home, students may lack supervision.
“We’re talking about an indefinite number of weeks,” said Calle, a former Newark schoolteacher. “Is online instruction a sustainable model for education? Probably not.”
Ryan P. Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said the shutting down of schools amid the health crisis underscored inequalities in the education system, calling it a “clear racial and social justice issue.”
"Every crisis exposes cracks in our safety net for society's most vulnerable, and this one is no exception,” he said. “While many kids can just pop open their laptops to learn from home, many others don't have that luxury — and will suffer in many ways from being away from school.”
There are concerns that wealthier districts will surge ahead, widening education gaps with poorer districts.
In her seventh-grade classrooms, Polo-Thorpe said, it was difficult to know who does and does not have internet or computer access. Many of her students complete online assignments on their cellphones or their parents’ phones, she said. Others turn to libraries, but that may not be possible at a time of “social distancing” when those facilities may also be closed.
“Other districts definitely have an advantage over us because they have the technology and resources they need to facilitate remote learning in a time like this,” she said. “However, Paterson’s teachers are resourceful and tenacious. We will make sure that the education of students doesn’t suffer too much.”
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