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New Mexico must immediately ensure that at-risk students lacking the technology needed for online learning get devices and internet access under a state District Court ruling Friday.
In what’s known as the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, a judge previously found that the state violated the constitutional rights of students – particularly those who are from low-income homes, are English language learners, Native American or have a disability – by failing to provide them with a sufficient education. Late last year as many schools remained closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Yazzie plaintiffs asked the court to step in and order the state to provide necessary technology for virtual learning to kids who need it.
As the 2020-21 school year nears an end, 1st Judicial District Judge Matthew Wilson on Friday ordered the state to do just that by identifying the at-risk students who are still lacking devices and high-speed internet access and ensuring those resources are provided. And the state needs to make sure teachers of at-risk students have the technology they need, too.
The Yazzie plaintiffs assert that there are thousands of at-risk students who lack the means to access remote learning.
New Mexico also must provide funding to school districts for IT staff, the court ruled.
“Children who are lacking access to internet and technology for remote learning are not getting much of an education, if at all, let alone one that is sufficient to make them college and career ready,” Wilson said at the hearing.
New Mexico Public Education Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said in an email that the court hasn’t issued a written order and the department won’t comment on the case until officials can review it.
“It is worth noting that PED and school districts have worked hard over the past year to expand high-speed internet access and put digital devices in the hands of students most in need so they could fully access their guaranteed public education,” Robinson said. “That work continues.”
Preston Sanchez, an attorney representing the Yazzie plaintiffs, noted that many Native American students continue to learn remotely because of tribal health orders, in addition to other families who chose to finish the school year with remote learning. He said students can’t get quality schooling from a distance without technological support.
“They’re losing hours of educational learning and, as a result, the academic achievement gap is widening,” he told the Journal.
Pueblo of Acoma Gov. Brian Vallo called the ruling a “huge victory for New Mexico’s Native children.”
The court’s decision on the lawsuit prior to the pandemic had already flagged technology as a necessary resource for adequate learning, Sanchez said.
“The pandemic arrived and revealed the major digital divide impacting rural and tribal communities today and so it becomes a much more urgent issue, but once the pandemic is over there’s still the court ruling that shows the computer resources and related infrastructure are still necessary for sufficient education,” Sanchez said.
He said his team has two weeks to send the judge a remedy proposal, and deadlines for improvements would follow.