How can I help? Committing to closing digital divide in underserved communities is good answer for today — and tomorrow

Gov. Phil Murphy said he gets asked the question all the time by individuals, companies and foundations: How can I help?

On Thursday afternoon in Irvington, he provided an answer: Help the state fill the gap that is the digital divide — that is, the lack of access to technology, either in the form of a device and/or connectivity to the internet. It’s an issue that came to the surface last spring when schools were closed due to COVID-19.

One — like other examples of systemic racism — that can no longer be ignored.

Murphy made it clear that the state, through CARES Act funding and other sources, has the ability to fund the $115 million necessary to help bring all students up to date with technology. But he wasn’t shy about making the ask of others — or even offering a suggestion.

“No one told me to say this, but I could almost even envision it: Adopt a district,” he said.

It’s a great idea. Groups need to step up. And they need to step up knowing that this is more than a one-time ask.

This isn’t about making up for a few months last spring — or preparing for what inevitably will occur this school year until a vaccine or reliable therapeutic is discovered. This is about the future of our children, our state and our economy.

We should expect students of all ages will do a lot of remote learning from this point forward. And that they will enter a workforce where — as their parents are learning on the fly — remote work is more of the norm than the exception.

New Jersey proudly talks of having the best school system in the country. This is how we keep the title.

At a time when the cost of doing business, the cost of maintaining our infrastructure and the cost of our pension plans are threatening to pull us down, we must maintain one of the few areas where we truly are better than the rest: education.

It won’t be easy. The digital divide is great.

There are plenty of areas that need help — many of which are in underserved communities. Which is why Murphy was in Irvington, where nearly 4,700 students — or nearly 58% of the total student body — did not have the proper means to keep up when the state went to remote learning last spring.

The state, in fact, estimates that approximately 230,000 students were in the same situation — put at a disadvantage compared with their peers because of a lack of technology or a reliable internet connectivity.

“(This) flies in the face of the progress that we have made in ensuring equal educational opportunity in the traditional classroom,” Murphy said.

It’s time to change that. It’s time to play to our advantage and use the experts we have in education and technology to create digital classrooms that far exceed those found anywhere else. That will attract — and retain — top companies and top employees.

But, it all starts with closing the digital divide — and committing to keeping it closed. This needs to be an annual investment, not only in devices and connectivity but the programs that go with it.

CARES Act funding may help today — but does anyone think municipalities will have money for this a year from now?

That’s why it’s time for those who can step up to do so. It’s hard to imagine how there could be a greater return on any investment. It’s the ultimate public-private partnership.

Murphy said the public sector is all in.

“We are committed to bridging the digital divide among our students over the long term — and aren’t just focused on a quick fix for a single school year,” he said. “Clearly, this need has gone unmet for too long. And as I said, the pandemic has exposed a deep divide that must be corrected now, but also maintained moving forward.”

The ask is of the private sector — even in the toughest of times.

“I can’t emphasize enough that we need the philanthropic community to step up as well so that the closing of this divide lasts forever, and always,” Murphy said.

“Corporations, foundations, individuals ask me all the time: ‘How can I help?’

“This is a terrific way to help some of our neediest and, by the way, most talented students and families in New Jersey.”