Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
For some New Mexico students, learning during the pandemic involved long drives to WiFi hotspots and sharing school devices with siblings and parents.
New Mexico wants to bridge that access gap before the fall semester begins, said Ryan Stewart, the state Public Education Department Cabinet secretary.
“Our goal by the start of school is that every single kid who can be connected in some way, satellite, fiber, (or) one of these new technologies, is connected, and also every kid has a device,” Stewart told the Journal on Wednesday.
Stewart acknowledged that internet access is not yet going to be available to all students, but strides have been made. PED estimated that 25% to 27% of New Mexico students lacked internet access and computers before the COVID-19 pandemic.
An April state district court ruling in the Yazzie-Martinez education lawsuit ordered New Mexico to identify at-risk students who still lack internet and devices, and ensure that those students and their teachers are provided with those resources.
Judge Matthew Wilson said at the court hearing that children who don’t have internet or technology for remote learning “are not getting much of an education, if at all.”
Stewart said preliminary data from the state’s technology survey that was launched in May shows improvements since before the pandemic, including a current “single-digit” percentage of students who lack devices, and anywhere between 10% and 20% of students who don’t have internet.
“I think we’re going to need to start treating devices like we treat textbooks,” Stewart said. “In the sense that every kid has them, regardless of remote (learning) or not, because kids use them for homework … they use them for just general access to information.”
Many New Mexico school districts supplied Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots so students could attend class and access learning materials during pandemic-induced school closures.
But connecting every student in rural and tribal areas to high-speed internet will likely prove more difficult.
“You can’t just snap your fingers and make broadband appear or fiber appear in the ground,” Stewart said. “That is a long-term investment that money alone isn’t sufficient to solve.”
The state’s newly created Office of Broadband Access and Expansion is tasked with creating a three-year strategic plan that will help state, tribal and private entities coordinate internet projects.
New Mexico is also investing in a Sceye Inc. study that will use blimp-like balloons to provide internet to rural areas without traditional internet infrastructure.
Back to school
New Mexico schools halted in-person instruction in early March 2020 because of COVID-19.
The state required schools to offer an online learning option during the pandemic.
That mandate is no longer in effect.
Many students would return to campus by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, but most school districts were operating in a hybrid in-person and remote model.
“We’re still expecting a not insignificant number of families, either for health reasons or other reasons that say, ‘I’m just not ready to bring my student back’ (this fall),” Stewart said.
To increase options for families who choose to stay remote, PED is working to increase online course access on its statewide learning management system.
“So, if you’re a kid in Hobbs, and you want to take a Japanese class that’s offered in Albuquerque, you might have the ability to do that now in a way that you didn’t before,” Stewart said.
The “online infrastructure” that the state expanded because of the pandemic could also allow teachers to share their course content more easily online with other schools.
Federal relief money
New Mexico schools received a total of $1.5 billion from three federal pandemic relief packages.
About 90% of that money goes directly to school districts, which decide how to spend the funds.
The PED has recommended that districts use the money to close the digital divide, purchase personal protective equipment and meet indoor air quality standards.
The agency is completing a public access portal that will show individual districts’ relief fund spending.
School benchmark assessments show that learning loss has been uneven across the state during the pandemic, Stewart said, which “hit the least advantaged of us the hardest.”
Some schools and school districts are performing at levels consistent with pre-pandemic assessments, some have slight learning loss, and some are displaying bigger learning gaps.
“Math was more impacted than reading,” Stewart said, “and that’s concerning for us as a state, because math is the area that we were struggling in the most even prior to the pandemic.”
The American Rescue Plan Act directed $225 million to PED and New Mexico schools that must be used for activities to address learning loss.
PED plans to use its portion of the money to help districts build tutoring programs into the school day and bring in more teaching fellows to support smaller class sizes.