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NM lawmakers confront broadband gaps


In this photo from earlier this month, desks in this fifth grade class at the Santo Nino Regional Catholic School in Santa Fe are spread out to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Private schools have been allowed to open at limited capacity. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico families are gathering under canopies in a park and sitting in cars outside restaurants, state legislators say, to catch wireless internet service necessary for online learning.

The anecdotes emerged Thursday as state lawmakers confronted gaps in the state’s broadband network and parents’ ability to pay for high-speed internet.

Legislators of both parties said the shutdown of in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the urgent need to expand broadband service, especially in rural New Mexico.

About 21% of students in public schools – roughly 66,200 young people – live in a household without an internet subscription, according to analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee. About 1,100 students live outside the reach of cell or broadband service, even if their parents could afford it.

Democratic Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants said New Mexico’s political leaders should be “ashamed.” He described seeing families gathering under canopies in a Grants park as they seek Wi-Fi service for remote classes.

“We weren’t prepared for this,” Sanchez said Thursday during a meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee, “but we are suffering now. More important, the people who are suffering are the students.”

The harsh comments came as lawmakers debated how to address both the short-term needs of families this school year and the long-term goal of expanding internet service.

Some legislators said New Mexico should embrace a recommendation of their staff analysts: the creation of a central broadband office to coordinate and oversee efforts to bolster internet service, an idea that would require legislation in the regular session scheduled to start in January.

It would cost public schools about $21 million to $26 million over the next 12 months, legislative analysts said, to fill in the broadband gaps for students. The work would involve buying laptop computers, subsidizing broadband or satellite internet service for families who can’t afford it and establishing cell data hot spots.

Emergency federal funding, school districts’ cash reserves and capital outlay funding are potential sources to cover the cost, analysts said.

In Thursday’s hearing, some lawmakers said they hoped Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration would allow in-person classes in districts and charter schools that want to pursue it. The state has directed public schools to avoid in-person classes for most students through at least Labor Day, though some elementary students may return after that if their schools meet certain requirements.

Regardless of the solution, Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Thursday’s hearing – held in Red River, with some participants connected through video conferencing – expressed frustration at the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I can’t imagine sitting in a car when you found a hot spot and experiencing adequate learning,” Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said.

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