Despite Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order keeping schools shuttered, there’s still about a month before we can say school’s out. So there’s still learning to do. And just like before this health crisis began, inner-city kids face more challenges than their suburban counterparts. Now, with everyone supposedly learning from home on their digital devices, the technology gap is laid bare.
Paterson Schools District Assistant Superintendent Susana Peron says a lack of resources has made equipping all students in the system with digital devices impossible.
“We had no choice but to develop paper packets, paper academic work,” she said.
Teachers were able to cobble together lessons in math, science and other core subjects, using photocopies and creating worksheets, a yeoman’s effort, but Peron acknowledges it’s not optimum.
“No new lessons, right, because our kids are going home. They’re working with their parents. They’re working with the resources that they have and there are many inequities in that if you think about it. We have English Language Learners, so we have parents who don’t have the command of the English language. We have parents who don’t have Wi-Fi at home. We have kids who don’t have a device at home,” Peron said.
The district has been able to equip high school kids with digital devices, but middle and elementary school levels has been a great struggle. Paterson-based Oasis, a nonprofit that provides services to women and families, has been pitching in to try to fill the gap.
“I’ve lost so much sleep over worrying about how we’ll be able to help these kids. I mean they are just literally flapping in the wind, trying to learn. You know, the buck just doesn’t stop at the devices. There’s a lot of human-resources constraints within that system there,” said Oasis education director Jessica Egger.
Egger says many of the families they serve find themselves having to share one cellphone or one laptop; many have no online access. Oasis teaching staff reach out to the more than 300 students in their programs to assess the needs and try to provide help.
“They are reaching out to the kids to help them with their packets, because regardless of whether you put a computer in the hands of a fifth grader, they’re still not working online. And if they’ve got a flip phone they’re taking a picture of that simple question, sending it to our teacher and our teacher is calling them and then working through that problem with them and the family,” Egger said.
Parents and kids line up at the Oasis headquarters on Mill Street for food and other household supplies, the types of resources that are rarely considered when you talk about the challenges to academic achievement, but they are just as relevant. Add to that the need for up-to-date technology.
“I mean, I didn’t have a computer before this. I had to borrow my sister’s, really,” said Paterson resident Anna Devon.
“It’s a very expensive burden on us, you know. They don’t reimburse us. They don’t give us anything. They don’t give us a voucher or anything since we had to go to the store to buy the computer or buy anything. That would’ve helped out,” Devon continued.
It is an ongoing struggle. The community has pitched in with individual fundraisers on Facebook and elsewhere. All told, these efforts have raised close to $50,000, but school officials say properly equipping the over 20,000 students in this system will take close to $4 million. It’s a difficult math problem for anybody to solve.