With a return to normal classroom learning in doubt for New Mexico’s students this spring, the future of digital learning has arrived for educators.
Schools will close for three weeks starting Monday to slow the spread of COVID-19, per an executive order from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. After that, class may restart remotely in early April.
Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said while decisions regarding technology purchases and training are in the hands of local superintendents and school boards, his department is taking stock of laptop and tablet inventory in each district.
Stewart, along with educators and lawmakers, also expressed concern over distance learning’s potential to leave some students behind in a state with large disparities in technology and internet infrastructure and availability.
“We know there are vast inequities around who does have access to hardware, broadband and the software and who doesn’t,” Stewart said at a news conference Friday morning at the Roundhouse. “What we don’t want to do in making any of these decisions is exacerbate the opportunity gaps that exist between those who have access to those devices and those who don’t. We do not recommend that districts move forward with online learning if it’s going to leave some students out of the educational process.”
After Lujan Grisham announced the three-week closure Thursday evening, Santa Fe Public Schools staff scrambled to prepare laptops and tablets for students to take home Friday. Tom Ryan, chief information and strategy officer, said the district has enough laptops for every third through 12th grade student and tablets for kindergarten through second grade students.
“We could technically run every class in an online environment,” Ryan said. “The challenge we need to face now is not everyone has been trained.”
Ryan said the district is in the process of contacting students absent Friday about receiving their devices. Superintendent Veronica García said about 10 percent of students lack internet access at home, so the district is also preparing to set up hot spots. Comcast announced Thursday that new customers can receive 60 days of free internet.
Stewart said school employees will be paid over the next three weeks as if there were no closure and no instructional days will need to be added onto the end of the year. García said she hopes to negotiate with the teachers union for staff to return to work a week from Monday, when classes were originally scheduled to restart after spring break, and begin preparing to deliver digital instruction before the end of the three-week closure. Even if teachers aren’t available during the closure, García said the district would publish learning materials online for parents to download.
“We want our students to stay busy and not fall behind,” García said. “We’re not geared to be online schools, so it might be a little choppy at first, but we don’t want them to regress.”
García said distance learning would not require students to sit in front of their computer for the entirety of normal school hours and instead would likely feature set times for teachers to explain concepts over video conference before emailing assignments.
While some speech and language therapy may take place online, García said special-education students whose individualized education program cannot be fulfilled remotely will receive compensatory school days at the end of the year.
“When we talk about equity in distance learning, we have to talk about special education,” García said. “Any instructional time for special-education students will be made up.”
Outside of Santa Fe Public Schools, which has around 13,000 students, smaller school districts have far less technological capacity. Santa Rosa Consolidated Schools Superintendent Martin Madrid said his district of around 650 students does not have enough laptops for every student to take home, and Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said distance learning will lay bare the state’s urban-rural divide.
“You might ask, ‘Why don’t we send the kids home with iPads so they can continue learning?’ ” Lente said. “This situation exemplifies in the realest of ways the discrepancy between tribal and rural lands and those in urban populations. For a lot of our kids, learning will end.”
During this year’s legislative session, Lente noted that there is only one state-certified library on tribal land in New Mexico while sponsoring a bill that would have divided $16 million between pueblo and tribal governments to support libraries and internet infrastructure. The bill passed the House Education Committee but did not receive any other hearings.
“I don’t want to make anything political about this criss that we’re in,” Lente said. “But I hope there is a realization here about how many people I represent in rural and tribal New Mexico who are at a huge disadvantage.”
On Friday afternoon, Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, gave out his cellphone number and provided links to practice tests for his Advanced Placement psychology students at Oñate High School. Soules said he is not necessarily worried about AP students during the extended closure.
“In general, distance learning is effective for students who are motivated and incredibly ineffective for unmotivated students, who need a teacher there to guide them,” Soules said. “This will expand what happens every single summer — the affluent kids will keep pace or even move ahead while the other ones slide back a little bit.
“It’s not their fault. They just don’t have the same access as other students to opportunities to move forward.”