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The Disconnected

Despite a court order and millions invested, some New Mexico students are still waiting for reliable internet access

Sheila and Vincent Largo breathed a deep sigh of relief when their daughter, Faith, walked into a classroom last August to begin her ninth-grade year at Cuba High School, a small institution in a town of less than 1,000 people, located a few miles from the Santa Fe National Forest.

Faith, like most New Mexico students, had spent the previous academic year attending classes online. She used a district-provided hotspot and ran a generator to keep her connected.

“My husband and I did our best to try and help her with all the stuff on the laptop,” Sheila Largo tells SFR, adding that the family needed more guidance on how to effectively use the tools demanded by the pandemic-driven Zoom classroom.

Things got easier as the Largos familiarized themselves with some of the computer-based programs, but their spotty internet connection meant online learning was never a proper substitute for in-person schooling.

In Cuba and across New Mexico, the Largos’ story is common. Despite two years passing since COVID-19 hit New Mexico, many families, particularly in rural parts of the state, still struggle with limited or no internet access.

Near the end of the 2021 school year, First Judicial District Judge Matthew Wilson ordered the state to provide immediate access to devices and connections to high-speed internet.

The ruling came three years after Wilson’s predecessor, late-District Court Judge Sarah Singleton, found the state had violated students’ constitutional right to a sufficient public education in the 2018 case Martinez and Yazzie v. State of New Mexico.

Wilson’s decision last May came after an emergency motion for relief filed by the Yazzie plaintiffs. When school buildings shuttered in March 2020 due to the pandemic, students took to laptops and Zoom for class, which prevented those without a device or broadband connection from logging in. The emergency motion specified students in rural areas serving Native students were particularly disadvantaged.

The across-the-board access Wilson ordered hasn’t materialized for all New Mexico students, an analysis by SFR finds.

“It’s a statewide problem,” says state Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, of the lack of internet access in New Mexico, adding that it “became really evident in the school, the disparities.”

The chair of the Legislative Education Study Committee and a longtime teacher, Soules tells SFR that the issue persists “in communities all across the state where they don’t have access to high-quality, fast broadband.”

The state’s efforts to provide a quick connection through hotspots weren’t sufficient, Soules contends.

“We’ve got problems…all around with broadband. Where I live there are lots of times I have to tell people, if I’m on the phone driving, that I’m gonna drop a call here any moment,” says Soules.

In an October presentation to LESC about the Yazzie/Martinez technology ruling, the Public Education Department noted the millions of dollars available to families in the form of subsidies and technology benefits. Yet, “New Mexico needs a long-term strategy to address student connectivity in the home,” the department’s report reads.

Soules notes that the state has made significant investments to improve internet access, but it takes time to build out broadband infrastructure. During the last session, the Legislature invested $20 million in connectivity nuts and bolts, which followed $130 million in allocations made the previous year.

“I don’t know that I would say there’s good progress,” Soules says, though “there has been progress made.”

Some school districts have taken the issue into their own hands.

A month ago, the Largos received an internet-service upgrade when Cuba Independent Schools helped install a Starlink terminal at their home that enables the family to access the world wide web through satellites. Unlike other satellite-based internet services, Starlink leverages low-orbit satellites to access a faster connection without relying on traditional broadband infrastructure such as fiber cables that rarely make it to rural areas.

The Cuba district went in with Starlink in the hopes it would better serve its rural population, where some students travel two hours by bus to get to class.

Superintendent Karen Sanchez-Griego tells SFR the district purchased 450 Starlink units, one for every family in the district, but the process to get each receiver installed is lengthy and costs more than expected.

Of the district’s $3.4 million federal pandemic relief funding, 35% of it went to making the investment in technology and internet services, which Sanchez-Griego explains was among the community’s primary needs.

“It’s not going to just be…here today, gone tomorrow,” Sanchez-Griego tells SFR. “It’s a long-range investment, overall, in what kids and families are going to be able to do.”

The superintendent explains that about one-third of the district’s families have been connected to the internet through Starlink. For those still waiting on that broadband infrastructure, she plans to have everyone online by the end of the school year in May.

Sheila Largo and her family have already seen the benefit from the Starlink connection. The standalone internet connection is faster than the cellular network they previously relied on and doesn’t require “our phones using up all our data, so it’s really wonderful to have that in our house.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

SFR is taking a deep dive into inequities in New Mexico’s education system in the context of the 2018 Martinez and Yazzie v. State of New Mexico lawsuit. With two more stories planned for the coming weeks, here’s a breakdown of the series so far.

March 2 - Does Not Equal - New Mexico faces a steep climb to make education more equitable

March 9 - Disruptions to testing and muddied accountability

March 16 - New Mexico’s legacy to make better teachers

Coming Next:

March 30 - Funding shifts for at-risk children

April 6 - Language education shapes or denies students

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

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