Ryan Stewart’s focus Tuesday was on the future of public education in New Mexico, but legislators were more concerned about the present.
Stewart, the state’s secretary of education, outlined goals the department wants to meet for students, teachers and school districts over the next several years in a strategic plan he presented to the Legislative Education Study Committee. His online audience, however, focused on what the department has done and what it can do to help public schools as they continue to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Several lawmakers from rural parts of the state peppered Stewart with concerns and questions regarding online resources for school districts, as well as when their area schools can open safely.
Sen. Gabriel Ramos, D-Silver City, wanted to know what the department was doing for school districts that did not have tablets or computers. He said one school district he represents is considering delaying the start of school until October because it is still waiting for the devices.
“We need to focus on rural New Mexico,” Ramos said. “We don’t need to leave these kids behind. I would ask you with all my heart to start looking at the rural areas. The further they fall behind, the further our state falls. And we don’t have any room to be falling backward.”
Rep. Willie Madrid, D-Chaparral, said he had to intervene last week for a school district in his area that had internet connectivity issues — a common theme for smaller school districts — and had not received any help.
He said he made calls to the Public Education Department and the Governor’s Office to rectify the situation but received conflicting information — one person informing him the problem would be resolved by Monday and another saying the office would begin addressing it Monday.
“These folks that we represent in the north and the south are without,” Madrid said. “And we’re mandating a core of standards without the possibility of making connectivity [for the rural areas].”
Stewart said the state received more than $40 million through the CARES Act for school districts to use, but he added the department has no control over how the districts spend the money because it comes from the federal government. He added the Public Education Department, in its communication to school districts, emphasized using the money for personal protective equipment and addressing connectivity issues to prepare for virtual learning.
Stewart pointed out the department does have some money from the CARES Act that it set aside to help schools with internet and equipment issues once districts used their allotment to help with those types of problems.
“We want to make sure we can get to every student that we can and close that last mile of individuals who do not have a device or are not connected,” Stewart said.
The issue of when schools can open for in-person learning was a key item for Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences. She said some rural counties have clearly met gating criteria of the state’s health order for some time now, but many students are using community centers, churches and day care centers in order to log into classes.
“I want to thank those community members who are stepping up, but I want to ask the secretary, why aren’t those numbers and capacities doable in a school setting?” Dow said.
Stewart said the current guidelines were in response to larger school districts that have significantly more students and reflect the spike in COVID-19 cases that hit the state through much of the summer. Allowing schools to open in a hybrid model after Labor Day remains the goal, he said, though the state’s largest district, Albuquerque Public Schools, will continue with distance learning through the end of the fall semester.
Some legislators criticized support some teachers have received from the education department to get them up to speed on virtual learning.
Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said the department “dropped the ball” on professional development, leaving some of them to learn how to use virtual platforms while also teaching students.
“It’s great to plan long-term, but right now, we’re kinda in a different situation that we’ve never been in before,” Brandt said.
Stewart defended the department’s effort, citing a partnership with Central New Mexico Community College funded through money from the CARES Act to provide online professional development in August. He said several thousand teachers used it to prepare for the upcoming school year.
“We don’t have a separate professional development budget that was unencumbered and ready to be deployed,” Stewart said. “Most of the other funds were spoken for or were already put into development for a number of professional development opportunities.”
A few legislators were interested in some parts of Stewart’s strategic plan — particularly a “whole child education” platform that addresses both educational and social needs. A key component of that is what was called “culturally and linguistically responsive instruction,” which would incorporate the state’s diverse culture and history into the New Mexico’s educational model.
“They can see themselves in the curriculum and they can be meaningful and critical participants in the educational process,” Stewart said.
It caught the attention of Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, who wanted to know how those ideas would be implemented.
“In order to make things culturally and linguistically relevant, the curriculum has to represent that,” Roybal-Caballero said. “We go back to what is proven nationwide and historically, that ethnic studies is a key component to culturally and linguistic education.”