State Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart called it a prudent, albeit difficult, decision to push back in-person classes at the start of the upcoming school year. But he addressed some of the logistical barriers that surround remote learning, notably technology access.
“Making this decision, it’s not done lightly, because we know that our kids need to be back in school. We know that there is no substitute for strong, in-person learning,” Stewart said.
What’s known as the “digital divide” has become a spotlight issue after the 2019-20 academic year ended with shuttered schools and distance learning. An analysis presented to lawmakers this month shows the vast majority of districts had to provide devices such as laptops or tablets to students during that time.
On Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pushed back in-person public schooling for the upcoming year due to an increase in COVID-19 cases and announced school would start virtually. The tentative plan is to bring children back after Labor Day, shifting course from the initial aim of starting school with a mix of in-person and remote learning called a hybrid model.
While this doesn’t apply to private schools, those institutions still have to follow public health orders.
During a virtual news conference, Stewart said a PED survey conducted at the beginning of the summer showed about 23% of the roughly 320,000 public school students in the state didn’t have a device and even more didn’t have internet connection at home.
Districts have used millions of federal dollars to fill the gaps, but Stewart said the state will need to use more federal money under its umbrella to get all children online.
Some rural areas require expensive infrastructure changes that would take place over years, therefore, WiFi hot spots are being used where they can, he noted.
Results from the 2020 New Mexico Latino Family Survey, which were publicly presented this week, showed 28% of the 480 Hispanic families surveyed only had internet access on their cellphones. And 21% did not have regular access to the internet at home.
Stewart said districts and charter schools that represent about 40% of the state’s students had already planned to start online.
Albuquerque Public Schools’ plan is among those that align with the state’s new direction.
APS unveiled a strategy last week that proposed a remote start to the academic year and then transitioning to a hybrid schedule in September at the earliest. On Thursday, APS and the Albuquerque Teachers Federation released a memoranda of understanding that allows educators to largely work from home during remote learning. It outlines accommodation procedures for high-risk staff and those who live with people who are at high risk.
The MOU also spells out what happens if an educator misses work due to COVID-19, noting that after they exhaust other available leave they can use sick time and apply for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
The agreement also says staff will be trained both in health and safety and in online teaching. It ensures employees are provided personal protective equipment when at school, too.
Even though learning will take place from a distance, students will still get meals, the PED said. Stewart said the department will make sure districts have a strategy to make that happen.
He emphasized the ultimate goal is to get kids back to school.
“We do remain committed to bringing our students back for in-person learning … as soon as we can safely do so,” Stewart said.