Newark students will get laptops, free internet during school closure

As learning increasingly moves online during nationwide school closures, Newark is taking steps to close the digital divide for students at home.

Newark will begin providing laptops to students who don’t have them, Mayor Ras Baraka said Thursday, adding that a recent survey by the district found that 7,000 Newark students lack internet-equipped devices. Meanwhile, efforts are also underway to provide free internet access to families who need it.

The district has tried to accommodate families with limited home technology by creating paper assignment packets for every grade level, and some schools have loaned out laptops. Next week, the district will begin distributing the additional laptops, Baraka said at Thursday’s press briefing. 

“I think as early as Monday, the superintendent and his team, along with the city, will begin delivering laptops to homes or providing them to families who do not have laptop access or access to the internet,” he said.

Schoolwork is going digital all over the country as districts shutter in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus. The Newark school district cancelled classes last Friday, Gov. Phil Murphy this week ordered any schools in New Jersey that remained open to close. 

One in three Newark households doesn’t have an internet subscription at home, while a little more than 20% of households don’t have a smartphone or computer, according to an NJ Spotlight analysis of 2013-2017 Census data.  

The state legislature approved a package of emergency bills on Thursday in response to the coronavirus crisis that includes a grant for New Jersey school districts to purchase technology including laptops, tablets, and internet hotspots for students in need.

Meanwhile, Optimum — a subsidiary of the cable company Altice that serves Essex County — announced that it will provide free internet access for two months to any new customers in its services areas who have children in grades K-12 or college and who do not already have internet. Families can enroll in the free service by calling 866-200-9522.

A City Hall spokesman said Thursday that details of the free internet plan in Newark are still being finalized.

The company also pledged for the next two months to not terminate broadband service for any residential or small business customers who cannot pay their bills, waive late fees, and open WiFi hotspots to anyone who needs them. 

While the district has said schools are expected to reopen March 30, Gov. Murphy has ordered schools to close indefinitely, suggesting the school shutdown may last weeks if not months. By providing technology to students, the city is addressing the reality that students might need internet access for much longer than a few weeks in order to stay in touch with teachers and complete learning activities.

Some Newark schools have already let students sign out school Chromebook laptops. If they don’t have internet access, the Altice initiative would allow students to actually use the laptops to connect to applications like Google Classroom, which many Newark teachers are using.

As of Friday, there are 26 positive coronavirus cases in Newark, while 2 people have died. It’s unclear how long schools will be closed in Newark, but parents say the shutdown has already brought educators and families closer together through virtual tools and officials are encouraging Newarkers to stay connected during this time. 

“If we help each other out, we will get through this,” Baraka said.