N.J. Pandemic Relief Fund gives $2.6M to help close digital divide

At a time when in-school learning is dropping across the state, school districts in nine New Jersey cities will get help in closing the digital divide from the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund.

On Thursday, the NJPRF announced it has pledged more than $2.6 million to help school districts in Newark, Paterson, Passaic, Bridgeton, Millville, Red Bank, Old Bridge, Freehold and Trenton.

The funds can be used to purchase laptop computers, Wi-Fi hotspots and internet access needed for remote learning.

First lady Tammy Murphy, the founding chair of the NJPRF, said the need is pressing.

“In today’s world, having access to a computer and internet access is not a luxury, but a necessity,” she said. “We are hopeful that our commitment — alongside that of others — will address this pressing need so students can continue learning through the pandemic.”

The decision by almost every district across the state to move to remote or hybrid learning due to COVID-19 has exposed a “digital divide” between students in wealthier districts who have devices and broadband internet access and those in poorer districts who do not. Without access, students in districts that have gone remote are at a major disadvantage.

The state has provided $45 million to public school districts to buy digital devices and internet connectivity, but nearly 40,000 students across the state are still without a device or internet connectivity or both, according to the state Department of Education.

NJPRF CEO Josh Weinreich said the fund reached out to many districts to ascertain their needs and directed its donations to some of the state’s most underprivileged districts, where the need far outstripped available funding.

“This is another great example of NJPRF channeling the energy and resources of New Jersey to fill in the gaps and ensure every child has the equipment and access they need so that their education is not interrupted,” Weinreich said.

NJPRF is also pledging $300,000 to the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association, which will act as a pass-through entity to administer grants to charter schools across the state, except those in Newark. The association will set up an application process and hire an independent reviewer to assist with the process.

“We are thankful to the Pandemic Relief Fund for including charter schools in New Jersey, the vast majority of which serve underprivileged children in our cities,” said Harry Lee, CEO and president of the association. “We will seek to fund as many schools as possible to cover their current and immediate technology needs.”

Here are more details on how NJPRF commitments will help the districts:

  • Newark: NJPRF is partnering with Prudential to provide funding for Newark Public Schools, as well as funds for charter schools that will be distributed through the New Jersey Children’s Foundation.
  • Paterson: NJPRF will underwrite the reimbursement toward the cost of internet access through Altice on student devices as well as the cost of math resources for grades K-5.
  • Passaic: NJPRF will provide funding for 200 touchscreen Chromebooks for special education students, who are currently using a random collection of devices that are not well-suited for this population’s needs and which makes teaching in a uniform way incredibly challenging.
  • Bridgeton: NJPRF will enable the district to purchase 400 Dell laptops fully loaded for student use and five months of T-Mobile hotspot service.
  • Millville: NJPRF will ensure the district can purchase 291 laptops equipped with Windows operating systems, high-end processors and more memory for students enrolled in career and technical education courses.
  • Red Bank: NJPRF will underwrite funding for 250 preschool students and internet connectivity for 100 families.
  • Old Bridge: NJPRF will ensure 6.5 months of internet connectivity through Altice for the remainder of the school year.
  • Freehold: NJPRF will seed funds for connectivity on 100 hotspots currently in use for the last 6 months of the ’20-21 school year and 50 new hotspots for an entire year of service.
  • Trenton: NJPRF provided to the Trenton School District for 1,200 Wi-Fi hotspots and one year of Wi-Fi service.