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Plaintiffs: NM students are being denied an education

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

It’s been more than two years since a judge found the state wasn’t providing all students – especially those considered at risk – an adequate education, as guaranteed in the state Constitution. Now, one group of plaintiffs in the high-profile Yazzie, Martinez case is arguing students are falling even further behind during the pandemic because of a lack of technology and infrastructure.

The Yazzie plaintiffs filed a motion Tuesday asking the 1st Judicial District Court to require the state to immediately make sure all at-risk students, especially Native American students in rural areas, get the devices and internet access they need to learn.

“These children are effectively denied access to any education, much less a sufficient education,” said Preston Sanchez, one of the attorneys for the Yazzie plaintiffs.

The legal push comes as the education system in New Mexico has been forced to rely on remote learning more than ever during the public health crisis. Schools were shut in the spring for the end of last school year and have largely remained closed this school year. Even as schools were allowed to bring some students back on campus, it was mostly for a combination of in-person and online schooling.

The plaintiffs contend that thousands of at-risk students – those who are low-income, learning English, Native American or have a disability – don’t have the tools they need to get a proper education in the virtual environment.

“After the court’s decision and order was issued more than two years ago, the state has still failed to provide adequate resources for technology, as it was understood in a pre-pandemic world,” the motion says. “But now, as technology has become the only entry point to public education, the impact of the state’s failure has become catastrophic, causing many at-risk students, especially those in rural districts serving predominantly Native American students, to effectively be denied all access to public education.”

Earlier this year, a judge denied the state’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.

State Public Education Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson flagged efforts the department has been involved in on the technological front, such as providing laptops and launching Wi-Fi hot spots in areas of need. Districts were also urged to use limited federal stimulus dollars for these resources.

“The problem of internet access, so critical for education during this pandemic, is not new to New Mexico and will not be resolved entirely in one year. Nevertheless, with the help of our partners, we have been able to put thousands of digital devices into the hands of New Mexico students who lacked them, and we have expanded internet access and quality of access across the state,” Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said in a statement.

Still, the motion says the state’s fixes are “woefully insufficient.”

For instance, lawyers wrote in the filing that students need high-speed internet at home that is strong enough to download assignments and stream videos.

“Now, more than ever, it is clear that high-speed internet connection at home is not a luxury – it is foundational to education equity and the right of all at-risk public school students,” the filing said.

Plaintiffs cited research in the motion that found about 23% of the population doesn’t have broadband internet and 9% of the population doesn’t have the option to buy it.

“It is unlawful and an educational catastrophe that for the foreseeable future some children are able to continue to access an education from home, while many others are not,” the document said.

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