Meeting a goal set two years ago, the Montclair school district is now able to provide computers and hot spots to all students who need them, thanks to a $2 million federal grant.

The district received $2,028,645 from the Emergency Connectivity Fund, a program authorized by Congress through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and run by the Federal Communications Commission. The funds will also allow students to keep the laptops during the summer months.

The Connectivity Fund, totalling $7.17 billion, was designed to provide schools and libraries with money to cover costs of devices and connectivity needs for off-campus remote learning, according to a June 23 press release from the Montclair district. The district will also be eligible for reimbursement for expenses related to hot spots and broadband internet from July 2021 to the present, the release states. 

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, the district has been ramping up its efforts to close the digital divide, providing laptops for students and connectivity for those without a device and/or internet.

At a July 2021 Montclair Board of Education meeting, Christopher Graber, the district’s director of technology, told board members that the district’s goal was a  “one-to-one” technology initiative in fall 2021 — aiming to eventually
provide every student with a school-issued laptop. The $2 million will ensure that will happen, school officials said.

With the new funding,1,424 HP Chromebooks, 11 with G9 touch compatibility, have been distributed to students. Some 50 additional requests have been received since the district rolled out this new distribution, Graber told Montclair Local. 

The new funding has also helped district families transition away from hot spots and instead to enroll in broadband internet from Comcast cable, he said.

Distribution for students at Glenfield, Bullock, Hillside, Edgemont and Bradford is complete, Graber said. 

“We are in the process of coordinating pickup dates and times for remaining schools,” he added.

Devices that have not yet been picked up by families are being held by the technology department, and those families will be contacted for pickup.

During the pandemic, the district began what would ultimately be a distribution of 4,000 devices and 100 hot spots to students, and helped transition 67 families to the low-cost Comcast Internet Essentials connectivity program, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds told Montclair Local by email in June 2021.

At the time, the district used part of its $1,748,771 technology budget, as well as $102,525 out of the $354,038 it received from the CARES Act, for Chromebooks and hot spots and to purchase devices that have “touch” capability for students in need.

But distribution of the new devices was complicated by global supply chain delays. 

Three of the world’s largest computer companies — Lenovo, Dell and HP — reported a combined shortage of nearly 5 million laptops in August 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy said at that time.

So while the district waited for its newly purchased laptops to arrive, it began to give out those it already had. The technology team serviced and distributed 1,300 Chromebooks and 51 Wi-Fi hot spots, Graber said at the time.

Throughout the 2021-21 school year, the district also worked with partner organizations in town, including the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence and LapTop Upcycle, a local nonprofit that refurbishes old, donated laptops and gets them into the hands of families in need, to continue to meet the technology needs of students and families.

Students attending 2021 summer classes were allowed to keep their devices for those sessions. Additionally, any family that relied on the district-issued device as a household’s sole device was allowed to keep the device over the summer, Graber previously told Montclair Local.

“This is a part of history in Montclair because we never really were a one-to-one [school district],” Graber told Montclair Local in summer 2021. “Regardless of socioeconomic status, every student is going to have a device that's assigned to them.”