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SFPS relies on the internet to teach students

The normally bustling Santa Fe High School campus remains closed for now. SFPS is planning to reopen some grades to a hybrid learning model, but there are no plans for middle or high schools yet. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

For Tom Ryan, internet access for students in Santa Fe Public Schools had always been an issue, at least to some degree.

But that issue soon came to a head when the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic came to New Mexico, closing schools across the state, including in Santa Fe.

“It’s turned it into a crisis,” said Ryan, chief information and strategy officer at Santa Fe Public Schools.

The district soon teamed up with officials at the City of Santa Fe to ensure that all residents, especially those with low incomes, had access to the internet as families started going to work with children attending school remotely.

Free Wi-Fi locations were set up at schools and libraries around the city, iPads and laptops were distributed and those without internet were given hotspots to use at home.

Desks in this first-grade classroom at El Camino Real Academy are spaced 9 feet apart to prevent the spread of the coronavirus when schools reopen for some students. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

When 96% of students logged on to remote learning in April, the district hailed efforts to increase internet access as a success.

“I do think Santa Fe Public Schools is leading the state in this effort,” Superintendent Veronica García said in an April school board meeting. “I thought there would be far more problems.”

But while the district’s early efforts helped mitigate gaps in internet access, the speed and quality students face when they log on varies widely across the city.

Ryan presented Santa Fe School Board members with a map detailing the internet speed of all the district’s more than 12,000 students. It showed areas covered in red dots, where pockets of students – primarily on the city’s Southside – had an internet connection that was extremely slow.

Ryan also highlighted some of the mobile home parks in the area, which city officials have mentioned suffer from connection issues, noting some had only a couple of students with fast internet speeds. The cause of the slow speeds is still unknown, he said.

“Some of it could be slow access, because there’s three or four kids trying to get on the same connection,” Ryan told the Journal. “They could have a good connection, but there’s just too many people.”

Poor connections, he said, could negatively impact a student’s ability to participate in remote coursework, especially when it requires them to download a significant amount of data. With issues of devices and access largely addressed, the district’s focus has now shifted to ensuring everything is working correctly.

Many have pointed out that families living in Santa Fe’s Southside are more likely to live in multi-generational households, creating a greater demand on utilities, including internet services.

That increased demand is evidenced by the internet industry as a whole. John Hill, who heads network operations for Santa Fe-based internet company Cyber Mesa, said demand for internet and faster speeds has exploded since the start of the pandemic.

Posters in the restroom at El Camino Real Academy remind students to wash their hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“We’ve been inundated really since the end of March,” Hill said. “We’ve done a lot of requests to go to higher-tier plans for a lot of our existing customers.”

Hill said the company’s newest customers often had no internet service before, but now feel as if they have no choice and that having children in school can be a contributing factor.

That spike in demand has forced Cyber Mesa to build new infrastructure, including new access points and transmitters, to accommodate new users. The investment has cost thousands of dollars.

When asked why certain neighborhoods lack sufficient broadband speeds, Hill said they often have to resort to outdated DSL, which can lead to slower speeds due to how comparatively far away those homes are from a central office.

“A lot of those homes are getting just 1.5 to 3 mbps, which is barely enough for one person to watch Netflix, let alone for people doing Zoom and online classes,” Hill said.

It’s something school administrators have also noticed.

At Nina Otero Community School, whose zone contains neighborhoods with some of the slowest speeds, Principal Angelia Moore said the internet can slow down when many households in an area are attempting to use it at the same time.

“We still have families that live in areas where, if there’s no cellphone service or Wi-Fi hotspots, it’s not gonna work,” Moore said.

She said that most students are still able to attend class and submit assignments, but that being dropped from a video chat while class is in session can be an issue.

“Teachers have been really flexible,” she said. “If a student isn’t able to get on and check in for a class, it can impact attendance.”

Stars are painted 6 feet apart on the sidewalk at El Camino Real Academy to keep students socially distanced when they return. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

As far as addressing the issue, Ryan said the district plans on distributing 700 more hotspots to families who need them, especially those with multiple students in one household.

He said they also plan on teaming up with the city to help them provide more Wi-Fi options to mobile home parks on the Southside, but emphasized that internet issues often have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

“There are so many variables; it would be unwise to try to draw those (conclusions) right off the bat,” he said.

Hill agreed that hotspots can be helpful as long as they’re able to handle the amount of data being used in one household.

“This equipment is only really geared to handle so much traffic,” he said. “You figure, with COVID, they probably increased their load by 10 times, 20 times.”

SFPS is currently scheduled to start welcoming back some elementary students for limited hybrid courses on Oct. 26. However, with many students expected to either choose to remain remote or not get one of the limited spaces for hybrid learning, online learning and its accessibility will still be paramount.

Ryan compared access to the internet to the Interstate Highway System created in the 1950s, calling it a necessity for many modern families.

“We need to be providing this service to all of our residents,” he said. “Our community as a whole benefits with this building up the infrastructure for internet.”

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