…Computers, internet hotspots make remote learning easier for all
SANTA FE — Two state agencies, working with other public and private collaborators, have significantly reduced the digital divide in New Mexico by extending internet access to thousands of students during the global health crisis.
When schools closed in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, paper packets of lessons and homework were the only way to reach students in remote parts of the state with no internet access.
Other students lived in areas with internet but their families could not afford it.
Seven months later, the Public Education Department, the Department of Information Technology and our collaborators have changed that picture by:
- Providing laptops to thousands of students;
- Standing up some 1,250 WiFi hotspots in underserved/unserved communities;
- Encouraging internet providers to offer affordable service connections; and
- Obtaining state and federal funding to close remaining gaps.
“We are determined to equip New Mexico’s K-12 students with all the tools they need to succeed, even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic,” Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said. “We are leaving no potential funding source untapped, and we will continue to work with our partners in the private sector to strengthen our information technology infrastructure well into the future.”
The Public Education Department, with funding from the New Mexico Indian Education Act, has provided 6,282 Chromebook computers to many of New Mexico’s Indian pueblos and to school children on the Navajo Nation.
In addition, New Mexico has gained some 1,250 WiFi hotspots since the pandemic — 550 fixed hotspots plus 700 mobile hotspots on the Navajo Nation. The former were established at no cost to communities by the federal Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC), a team of volunteer technology professionals. The latter were funded by PED’s Indian Education division. The nonprofit Community Learning Network’s Homework Gap Team maintains this map to help New Mexicans find the nearest hotspots.
“Before the pandemic, there were maybe a handful of public hotspots in New Mexico, mostly at libraries. This is an incredible accomplishment,” said John Chadwick, PED’s educational technology coordinator.
The Department of Information Technology has also worked with internet service providers to improve student access. First, DoIT determined what type (2G, 3G, 4G, etc.) of wireless service and which service provider (T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, Cellular One, etc.) is available in every New Mexico community. Based on the data, some service providers then stepped up with free or reduced-price offers for students or educators.
“All of the vendors have really stepped up,” Chadwick said.
For example, T-Mobile has offered to provide 12,747 free personal hotspots to students around the state; Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in Taos County is offering free internet service to all families during the pandemic; Verizon is offering $20 devices to students, and AT&T has a program that makes teachers eligible for free devices.
“Ensuring students have access to the Internet is the highest priority for DoIT,” DoIT Cabinet Secretary John Salazar said. “It is important that students have what they need, including dependable equipment, and know where to find free hotspot locations in their community.”
Individual districts and charter schools are also investing locally to improve internet access. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has allocated $5.75 million from the Governor’s Emergency Educational Relief (GEER) fund for that purpose, and districts and charters themselves have budgeted more than $40 million in federal CARES Act funding for connectivity and technology needs.
“We’ve all figured out how to make this work by working together,” Chadwick said. “We’re really laying the groundwork for the long term.”