If there were any doubt that we and our students are living in a digital world, it has been erased by the events of this pandemic.

Last March, when schools closed and classroom instruction pivoted to being remote, students who had access to devices and to teachers who had honed their virtual instruction skills were better off than students who did not have those advantages.   

Many students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged families, did not have devices or internet access. Throughout 2020, the state Department of Education and individual school districts did a heroic job of shrinking the digital divide. On Feb. 10, Gov. Murphy announced at a press conference that only 195 students in New Jersey currently lacked either hardware or internet connectivity for remote learning — down from 231,000 at the beginning of this school year.

This is excellent news, and it is a credit to the persistence and dedication of our local educational leaders. But ensuring students have access cannot be the end goal of a district’s digital education program — there are other components of digital education we must all embrace.    

That’s where the Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools Program comes in. This program, which is featured in School Leader’s cover story in this issue, provides tools, training and resources to support and reward schools and districts as they pursue excellence in their digital instruction.

The Digital Schools program operates within the framework of Sustainable Jersey for Schools, an outstanding voluntary certification program for schools working towards sustainability goals. Schools and districts can earn certification by successfully completing recommended actions.   

Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools builds on the legacy of the Future Ready Schools-New Jersey (FRS-NJ) program, which ceased operations in 2019. The topical areas and content of the FRS-NJ program have been integrated into the new initiative. The Digital Schools actions include addressing topics such as professional development, data safety and security, digital citizenship, infrastructure, digital equity and more.   

As an educator, I can tell you there are few things as important to today’s students as the quality of digital education. This area seems to increase in complexity continuously, but it is the responsibility of boards of education to see that students are prepared to be digital learners as they advance towards careers and/or higher education.   

Someday all of our schools will be fully open and students will be back in our classrooms. But digital learning will always be critical in 21st century instruction. Students who are prepared to use technology in a productive way will be better equipped to develop effective self-directed learning skills, solve problems, think critically and collaborate with others.   

I urge New Jersey’s educational leaders to participate in the Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools Program.