When schools were ordered to stop in-person instruction in March to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, an estimated 230,000 students may have suffered during the switch to virtual learning due to unreliable internet connectivity or struggles to get their hands on a working electronic device, the state has said.

Heading into the new academic year with most districts relying heavily or completely on virtual platforms for education, it's expected that plenty of students will still be a step behind others, through no fault of their own.

"Since our society is highly engaged in the digital world, to not have the tools, to not have the knowledge, means that you are then shut out of certain opportunities," Tanya Maloney, an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Montclair State University, said.

Maloney said the pandemic has helped shed a light on educational inequities — particularly those impacting children of color — that have been around for decades, such as the so-called digital divide.

Looking ahead to the 2020-2021 academic year, Gov. Phil Murphy in July announced a three-pronged approach aimed at closing gaps in student access to devices and internet connectivity.

The Department of Education estimated that the price to close the digital divide is approximately $54 million. Murphy's plan included the request for philanthropic support from companies and organizations, along with relief funds to fill unmet needs.

Although efforts by the state and local school districts have reduced the number of students who are at a disadvantage technologically, lack of broadband access and technology remains a serious problem, the New Jersey School Boards Association said when the Murphy Administration revealed its plan.

But, according to Maloney, getting a laptop or other device into the hands of a disadvantaged student won't be enough to tackle the divide, if the student isn't very experienced with the tool and its capabilities.

"They're going to need to have the knowledge, their families are going to need to know how to support their children using this," Maloney said.

Kelly Moore, program director of the Children's Center for Resilience and Trauma Recovery at Rutgers University, encourages New Jerseyans to "try to help your neighbor, help your community" with their own expertise and resources.

"There are a lot of disparities in terms of access in education and technology," Moore said.

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