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Access to technology varies across school districts

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

As schools work on uprooting the way they teach children due to school closures, shifting to exclusively online instruction isn’t a reality for many New Mexican districts.

Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart announced Friday that statewide school closures will be extended for the rest of the current academic year, due to rising coronavirus infection rates. But students will still be taught without in-person instruction – an effort that will look different depending on where children go to school.

The PED is not requiring districts to use a wholly virtual learning model. Stewart said districts and charters will be creating plans to continue learning and those plans will address how instruction will get to students – physically, digitally or both.

Accessibility is a big hurdle districts face, because not all students have access to the internet or to computers. There are also logistics to iron out with printed lessons, such as making sure all students obtain the resources.

For the state’s largest school district, Albuquerque Public Schools, about 12% of the roughly 80,000 students don’t have access to high-speed internet at home. APS is taking stock of what devices students have access to.

The district last week placed an emergency order for 18,000 Chromebooks – the most they could get – to hand out to the students who need them most, according to Chief Information and Strategy Officer Richard Bowman.

APS will continue to provide both online and print instruction during the closures.

A survey conducted by PED, which reflected 89 charter schools’ and districts’ responses, showed that access to computers and internet varies greatly across the state.

New Mexico’s many small and rural school districts are particularly affected by a lack of technological infrastructure.

Clayton Municipal Schools, covering 2,500 square miles in the state’s northeastern corner, serves 429 students, of which Clayton Superintendent Stacy Diller estimates 60% don’t have internet access at home.

Diller also said that even if families say they have internet it may not be consistent enough to support online learning programs.

The district is considering mailing packets to families who need them.

Local internet provider Plateau has agreed to provide all Clayton families with two free months of internet access, Diller said.

In Wagon Mound, paper packets have become a requirement for many students to continue their learning.

Wagon Mound Public Schools has around 60 students, over half of whom have no access to the internet at home, Superintendent Anita Romero said. Those students are asked to pick up packets from the district office once a week.

Romero said the lack of internet service is especially frustrating because the district’s schools have sufficient technology.

Some students in Wagon Mound live up to 25 miles from school, so bus drivers have been delivering lunches and homework packets to families on the outskirts of the district.

Ellen Bernstein, president of the union Albuquerque Teachers Federation, noted that some teachers are in a similar positions, lacking the technology to teach at home.

Stewart said the PED is exploring state and federal funding options to help schools provide laptops and other devices to families.

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