Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Nearly one-quarter of New Mexico’s students lack access to the internet at home – a challenge exposed by the coronavirus pandemic and a move to remote learning.
State lawmakers heard testimony on the scope of the problem Tuesday as they explored how to address the problem with legislation or funding in next year’s session.
In the meantime, they were told, school districts in the state are deploying temporary Wi-Fi networks in their communities, turning school sites into internet hot spots and patching together other short-term solutions.
About 99% of the state’s school sites now have high-speed internet, said Jonathan Chamblin, executive director of the state Public School Facilities Authority. But about 76,000 students – or 23% of the student population – don’t have internet service at home, he said.
“Our work really needs to expand beyond the school site,” Chamblin told members of the legislative Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee. “Now we need to ensure each district has a network that connects the kids when they leave the school campus.”
About half of the 76,000 students without internet at home, he said, could probably obtain service if their families had a voucher to pay for it. Chamblin estimated it would cost about $5.7 million to help each household install equipment and $18 million to $73 million a year to pay for the service.
“It clearly reveals how much more work we have to do,” said Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe. “That is a lot of people – a lot of students. That’s not acceptable.”
The gaps in internet service are a particular focus this month as New Mexico public schools start the academic year without in-person classes. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration directed schools to begin with remote learning for most students at least through Labor Day as part of a strategy to limit the transmission of COVID-19, the contagious disease that has killed more than 700 residents since March.
Schools have scrambled to come up with temporary solutions for students without home internet service.
“My biggest fear is we’re going to have an entire generation of kids who live in poverty who won’t be able to catch up,” said Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen.
Kimball Sekaquaptewa, chief technology director at Santa Fe Indian School, said the challenge is pronounced in tribal communities. Even families with internet service, she said, often lack the speeds necessary for remote learning.
“Everybody is under-connected,” Sekaquaptewa told legislators.
Lawmakers this week have discussed establishing a new agency to take the lead on developing broadband throughout the state – a recommendation of legislative analysts. Some also said the state needs a dedicated revenue stream for student internet access.
The pandemic “has exposed our vulnerabilities,” John Badal, CEO of Sacred Wind Communications, said in Tuesday’s hearing. “We have to develop a statewide plan, and we need to do it quickly.”