On Oct. 23, the NJSBA released the third in its series of NJSBA special reports on education during the pandemic, Reopening Schools: Online Learning and the Digital Divide

This report explores the difficulties facing school districts as they provide remote instruction to students during the current public health emergency. 

“NJSBA has committed its resources to helping local boards of education meet the challenges of the pandemic through training, advocacy, direct services and research,” said Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod. “We believe that the information offered through our programming and special reports will prove valuable to local boards of education and help inform public policy on education.” 

For the current report on the digital divide, NJSBA reviewed published articles and studies, conducted more than half a dozen surveys of school officials, and interviewed board members and superintendents. This report makes several recommendations for action by the state and local school districts to address the digital divide and online instruction, including the following: 

Provide Updates on State Efforts to Close the Digital Divide  The New Jersey Department of Education should provide a status report on the awarding of the 2020 Bridging the Digital Divide grants and related philanthropic contributions to local school districts. The update would enable the state to identify the need for additional support and funding.  

Develop a Statewide Report on What Students Learned During the Shutdown and a Strategic Plan to Address Learning Loss  Working with local districts, the NJDOE should assess the level of student learning loss during the shutdown. Aggregated data should be collected to provide a clear, statewide picture of what happened during that period. This would be an important step toward developing a funded strategic plan to help address remediation. 

Develop a Statewide Report on the Delivery of Special Education Services What was the experience of New Jersey’s 246,693 special education students during the shutdown? What will happen if schools are forced to shut down again? What is the state plan to address learning challenges and compliance with state and federal requirements? 

Develop a Program to Improve the Quality of Online Instruction Whether school districts implement 100% virtual programs or a hybrid of virtual and in-person teaching, online learning will be an important part of public education in the future. A June 8, 2020 Microsoft report, Education Reimagined: The Future of Learning, points out, “… traditional pedagogy does not transfer flawlessly to digital.” Educators need professional development to effectively teach classes online. How can the NJDOE help districts and provide resources to assess and improve the quality of online instruction? 

Improve Remote Instruction  The Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools program issued a report in August, titled the Remote Digital Learning Roadmap. The program, a collaboration of the Sustainability Institute at The College of New Jersey, the NJDOE and NJSBA, is supported by the state’s major educational organizations. It is designed to promote and recognize sound digital learning practices in public schools. Local school boards and superintendents should review the “Roadmap” report and consider participation in the Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools program if they have not already done so. 

The NJSBA expects to release a fourth report in early 2021 on the impact of isolation on students during the pandemic.