In the year it took New Jersey to close its digital divide for low-income students, a makeshift volunteer community group raised funds to get them online for school.
By Sarah Baldwin | April 4, 2021
At the height of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the New Jersey Department of Education estimated that 231,000 pre-K-to-12th-grade students across the state lacked sufficient access to the tools necessary for online learning; a digital divide separating them from their better-resourced peers.
Long before then, however, students in Camden City have struggled with a lack of access to the Internet and web-enabled technologies that have become increasingly necessary to 21st-century learning models.
Since the onset of the pandemic, that gap has only widened for them, whether due to a lack of access to digital devices like Chromebooks and tablets, unreliable Internet connectivity, or the inability to afford Internet access.
Despite awareness of and commitment to remedying these inequities, solutions from state and local governments took months to implement. After a series of surveys in 2020, the New Jersey Department of Education calculated the scope of the state digital divide; however, it wasn’t until March 2021 that Governor Phil Murphy declared that gap to be closed.
In the interim, however, Camden County residents took it upon themselves to address the needs of the children in their communities.
Since 2016, Lij (“Chocky”) Tswago, Sr. and Brandon Horsey have supplied footwear to at-risk and underprivileged kids in Camden City through their nonprofit, New Soles, Inc. When the pandemic hit the city, Tswago, Sr., Jibril Smitherman of the Pennsauken-based Barbershop Lounge, and realtor Jane Donohue began brainstorming ways to get those same kids the Internet access they needed for remote schooling.
The group devised a solution it called “No Child Left Offline.” Together, they helped low-income families apply for the Comcast Internet Essentials package, and raised funds from local businesses to cover the $9.95 monthly cost for the neediest among them.
Comcast Internet Essentials provides high-speed Internet service for low-income families; according to the company, households that are eligible for public assistance programs like the National School Lunch Program, Housing Assistance, Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, etc. are likely to qualify,
After piloting the program in Pennsauken, the volunteers opened it up to families throughout Camden County.
By March 2021, No Child Left Offline had provided free or low-cost Internet access to 87 Camden County families.
Although they’re proud of the work they’ve done, Donohue and Tswago, Sr. view it as a necessary response to a lack of permanent solutions to institutional deficits for low-income families.
“Funds don’t necessarily equal the answer,” Donohue said.
“To say that every single student is connected and has everything they need to participate in online school is definitely not true.”
Tswago, Sr. hopes that Camden City schools will prioritize access to web-enabled technology and high-speed Internet in their annual budgets, while Donohue believes that government regulation of the cost of internet access is an important step in permanently bridging the gap.
Until then, however, the organization is developing a funding plan for the 2021-22 academic year.
“The hope is that if we start [our fundraising efforts] earlier, we’ll be able to help more families next year,” Donohue said.
“We’re definitely extending [the program] at least through the next school year,” Tswago, Sr. said. “If it’s something that we do decide to continue, maybe we could only realistically do it for a smaller number of families. It’s really dependent on funding.”
This story was produced thanks to a reporting grant facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and funded by New Jersey Children’s Foundation.
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