New Mexico Public Education Department still working to close digital divide – Santa Fe New Mexican

The New Mexico Public Education Department has taken more steps in its court-ordered effort to ensure all public school students have adequate access to the internet, the agency said in a news release.

The New Mexico Student Connect program, operated by broadband consultant CTC Technology and Energy, has been reaching out to families with school-age kids to find those still in need of internet access and digital devices, the agency said.

CTC also is raising awareness about the agency’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which offers eligible households a $50 monthly credit — $75 for houses on tribal land — to secure internet service. The program also offers a one-time $100 credit for a computer purchase.

“By the time the new school year starts, we will have used every resource available to make sure that every student in the state has what they need to participate, not only in the remote learning program, but also in the many other ways we use technology for learning,” Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said in a statement. “We are getting people connected and closing the digital divide.”

CTC’s outreach effort is focused on 23 school districts named in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit, in which a judge ruled in 2018 the state was failing to provide a sufficient education to certain groups of students.

In April, Judge Matthew Wilson ordered the state to determine the need for digital devices and internet access among students within those 23 districts, including Santa Fe Public Schools.

The Public Education Department released a digital survey in early May — “for those who could complete it” — to help gauge the need. It faced criticism for the survey’s online format.

Neal Weaver, chief information and strategy officer at Santa Fe Public Schools, said most students in the local district have internet access at home, but it’s often too slow to run distance-learning programs.

The district partnered with a research company late last year to evaluate families’ internet access.

“We started to focus on the sufficiency of internet connection,” Weaver said. “The end result was that we realized that there [were] less than 100 students who have no internet — truly no internet connection.”

As a temporary fix during the pandemic, he said, the district sent paper packets to those students. Later, the district provided take-home hot spots and outdoor Wi-Fi at some school sites.

Some of the hot spots weren’t fast enough for students’ school needs, Weaver said, so the district is working to upgrade them.

The district also is aiding in CTC’s effort to reach out to families in need, he said.

“We can feed information to CTC, so when they outreach to students, we can provide them a list of opportunities, based on where they live, how many people are in their household and many other factors,” Weaver said.

He estimates nearly 74 percent of the Santa Fe district’s students will qualify for the aid program.

Even before the pandemic, he said, internet access issues created a “homework gap,” making it difficult for students to keep up with their studies. As students return to classrooms in August, he said, their reliance on digital learning will continue.