Even by the most optimistic standards, the logistics of learning in 2020 have been difficult, if not close to impossible, for a significant number of New Mexico students.
Technological challenges have combined with trauma caused by COVID-19’s deadly rampage through hard-hit populations, especially the state’s Indigenous communities, to disrupt classrooms and educational plans.
More than 32,000 students — or one of every 10 enrolled in public education statewide — have been referred to a state-sponsored coaching program, many for being disengaged, regularly missing classes, or in danger of failing one or more classes. Less than a quarter are participating, however. And more than half of those, or 5,173 students, are in need of the most help, according to the state education officials, meaning they endure significant on-going barriers and are receiving regular interventions, sometimes daily.
Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart and his staff didn’t mince words about the severity of the challenge in a December presentation of the education agency’s 2022 budgetary request to state lawmakers.
Learning losses caused by the pandemic — particularly for at-risk students, which make up a majority of New Mexico’s student population — will likely weaken already low student outcomes, according to the 13-page memo.
“Additionally, school closures and remote learning have had a dramatic impact on enrollment in many school districts, leading some school district leaders to worry about the pandemic’s impact on their school district’s finances,” they added.
The state education agency went on to ask the legislators for $4 million in emergency funds, citing the possible need for additional grants in light of enrollment shifts in school districts and increased costs related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The challenges facing New Mexico’s public education system were numerous before the pandemic swept into the state last March. Nearly three of every four public school students come from low-income families. One in seven are English language learners; the same percentage are disabled.
Keeping many public school students engaged in pre-pandemic classrooms was hard. Now add to that the chaos of COVID-19 as students without access to the internet struggle to continue their education.
Deputy education secretary Katarina Sandoval drove those challenges home during last month’s legislative presentation, telling lawmakers of a student who regularly missed classes before a counselor working for a contractor hired to help students tracked him down.
“When the counselor reached out (to the student’s) mother she learned that (the student) and his siblings were all living with different people because the family lost their home,” Sandoval said. “He was actually kicked out of the place he was living and even his mom was trying to reach him. She wasn’t even sure where he was at the time.”
The counselor finally found the student and remains in contact, sometimes multiple times a day, Sandoval said. She has connected him with state services for housing and technology support to resume school online.
“That just gives you a sense of the kind of services that were occurring in the spring and continue to occur now,” she said.
One teacher’s experience
This fall, Viola Hoskie greeted her fourth-grade students online from her classroom at Tobe Turpen Elementary School in Gallup, N.M. Going in rather than working from home helped her focus and maintain her work routine, she said. Not that her consistency simplified her students’ remote learning experience.
“My students who live behind mountains or in the canyons have a hard time getting online,” said Hoskie, who, like many of her students, is Navajo. “I have one student who tries to, like, get into class and I try to get him into class and it just will not work on certain days. And so that has always been a struggle.”
The connectivity issues complicating Hoskie’s instruction time persisted despite the Gallup-McKinley School District forking over $10 million in 2020 to distribute laptops, iPads and mobile hotspots to students.
New Mexico is on the losing end of the nation’s digital divide, ranking 49th in the nation for broadband access, a problem particularly acute on Indian reservations and remote, rural communities — categories that describe the challenges for much of Gallup-McKinley’s student population. The city of Gallup borders the Navajo Nation, and its school district covers an area nearly the size of Connecticut. So not only do large numbers of Gallup-McKinley’s students lack devices to use; less than half of McKinley County’s 71,000 residents have access to high-speed internet.
The district’s diverse student population is almost exclusively low-income; nearly one of every two children under 18 lives below the poverty line in McKinley County. Four of every five students are Native American, about 30% are English Language Learners, and 8% are homeless, Superintendent Mike Hyatt noted in a recent court motion that’s part of a landmark education lawsuit in New Mexico.
Students aren’t the only ones struggling with the digital divide, either.
“Some of our teachers do not have access to the Internet in their homes,” Hyatt added. “For example, at Navajo Elementary, eight teachers out of 16 did not have wi-fi at home.”
Hoskie is lucky that way. Much of her time outside classroom instruction during 2020 was spent troubleshooting tech issues with parents or checking in via emails and text messages, she said. So far, all of her students have kept attending online classes.
“Sometimes the parents will send me pictures of their student work which I’m totally fine with,” she said, “In a typical week, I probably send around 100 text messages.”
It’s difficult to know if Hoskie’s day-in, day-out remote classroom experience played out the same way in hundreds of classrooms across New Mexico from March through the end of 2020. But it is likely some version of it did.
As the fall semester drew to a close in mid December, the vast majority of New Mexico’s more than 750 public schools — many in small towns and rural areas — were using the remote learning model for instruction, according to the state Public Education Department.
Still, at the halfway point of the school year, it is unclear the degree to which the virus has deeply thwarted educational achievement in New Mexico and what the long-term consequences will be. The New Mexico Public Education Department announced in early December that it would pause the state’s spring 2021 standardized testing due to the unpredictability of the pandemic and would reassess the situation in early to mid January.
What is clear, though, is that the new normal isn’t working for everyone.
Top education officials at the December legislative hearing briefed lawmakers on findings from a recent survey confirming what many around New Mexico have suspected:
• 44% of families with children in kindergarten through fifth grades reported struggling with using a computer for learning.
• 19% of students in sixth through 12th grades reported having to take care of younger siblings while 16% reported not having an adult checking in on their progress.
• More students are reporting a current housing situation impacted by economic hardship.
A Hard Year
COVID’s destructive power came at a significant moment in New Mexico. It is hard to overstate the educational needs in New Mexico, now magnified by a once-in-a-century pandemic. Before the virus shut down large sectors of the economy, reducing state tax revenue, New Mexico had begun to pour hundreds of millions of dollars to address long-standing educational inequities.
Now some worry that recent progress could be wiped out and old problems could continue to fester.
“COVID-19 has exacerbated the opportunity gaps in an already unfair state public education system in which some districts, families and students have access to broadband Internet, while others, like Zuni Schools and its students and families, do not,” Zuni Public Schools superintendent Daniel Benavidez said in a December court motion.
His testimony, like Hyatt’s, the Gallup-McKinley school district superintendent, is part of a court motion by plaintiffs in the landmark Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, which is forcing the state to address decades-old inequities. The plaintiffs are demanding New Mexico do more to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t roll back recent educational gains — or allow the state to use the virus as an excuse to slip back into old funding habits.
“Our students, nearly all of whom are Native American and English Learners, will most likely fall farther behind students in other districts due to our lack of access to computers, technology and necessary broadband infrastructure,” said Benavidez. He and Hyatt were joined by four other school superintendents in the court motion who sounded the alarm.
Stewart, the state education secretary, defended the state’s response to the pandemic, pointing to the “thousands of digital devices” the state had put “into the hands of New Mexico students who lacked them” and the expansion of internet access.
The education secretary was referring to Chromebooks distributed around the state, including more than 6,000 to Native Americans thanks to the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department. And to creative approaches to provide more internet connectivity around the state.
Consider, for example, the systemic barriers to remote learning posed by poverty, geography and technology in the Cuba Independent School District, about 100 miles northeast of Gallup.
About 70% of Cuba’s 570 students lack sufficient broadband or cellular service, said Cuba schools superintendent, Dr. Karen Sanchez-Griego, who was one of the six district leaders to contribute their voice to the court motion. More than 40% of the families in the district are on food stamps and 60% live below the poverty level.
The pandemic forced students out of school buildings where they had the technology needed for a 21st century education.
After that happened, some could be seen sitting or parked on school grounds to connect to the schools’ broadband Internet, the superintendent recalled in the court motion. The need for broadband access across a school district the size of Rhode Island was so overwhelming in 2020 that the district took unprecedented steps to help families connect. It purchased WiFi hotspots near three Navajo Chapter Houses — communal, administratives meeting places for tribal members — and laptops for students and smartphones for teachers, who used them to provide daily instruction, including administering tests.
“And, because some families cannot afford phone plans that allow for regular instructional learning, (the district) has opted to pay those phones bills through the phone companies directly,” Sanchez Griego said in the motion.
One solution — buying and distributing “jet packs,” small mobile internet hotspots for Cuba’s students — revealed the depth of the monumental challenge, Sanchez Griego said in a telephone interview.
When students continued to not show up for online classes after receiving the devices, district officials discovered they had overlooked a fact of life for many in and around Cuba. It is not uncommon for people to heat and light homes with generators. And some families couldn’t keep the generator running because it cost too much. So some of the mobile hotspot devices weren’t regularly charged.
The school district leapt into action, applying for and receiving a $2,000 grant to help families buy gasoline to run the generators, which keep the internet devices charged, which, in turn, keeps students online so they can learn, Sanchez-Griego said.
Cuba’s example demonstrates how education officials, school districts and parents are responding creatively to historically challenging circumstances.
It’s important to remember not everyone is experiencing the pandemic the same.
Compared to many on New Mexico’s tribal lands, Desiree Harjo of Zuni Pueblo seems to have it good. But everything is relative.
Her family has an internet connection. And her workday commute is short.
She powers up her computer and, voila, she’s at work: Teaching kindergarten at Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary, the same school Lucia, her fourth-grade daughter, attends. In mostly rural northwest New Mexico, Shiwi Ts’ana is one of four schools operated by Zuni Pueblo, one of the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes.
Like everyone else, Harjo and her family have adapted to pandemic life. That has meant keeping Lucia distant from relatives who experienced COVID-19 in their own homes. The fourth grader struggles without the family presence, her mother said, but she’s adapting with technology solutions with skills she’s learned in class.
“She’s become really heavy with the email and sending pictures and stuff like that so that helps a lot.”
Still, Harjo’s limited internet bandwidth causes her video to buffer and freeze sometimes — not the worst problem in tribal lands where more than 40% of people lack access to broadband, a percentage that jumps to 68% in rural areas.
But it’s frustrating.
“Because a lot of devices are connected to the Wi Fi and I’m on my Zoom pretty much all day too so you have your regular technical issues,” Harjo said.
Harjo and her family represent an oasis of relative connectedness in a desert of digital challenges.
As of May, about 70% of Zuni Public Schools’ students could only go online via smart phones, according to Benavidez, the Zuni superintendent.
Soon after the pandemic hit, the school district installed equipment into three school buses capable of providing up to 20 gigabytes of broadband to serve as mobile sites for families to connect to the Internet temporarily.
Meanwhile, about 650 Chromebooks made their way to Zuni students thanks to the state Indian Affairs Department. And nearly 90% of Zuni’s school population — or 1,244 students — have been referred to the state-sponsored coaching program, although only about 300 are participating, state records show.
Prepping for pandemic schooling
For her part, Hoskie, the Navajo fourth-grade teacher at McKinley-Gallup, is weathering the pandemic. This summer she prepped for the 2020-21 school year, developing technology skills to enhance her instruction through a course at Central New Mexico University. She also used programs offered to her by the Golden Apple Foundation of New Mexico, a non-profit that provides teachers professional development and resources for classrooms.
She met up with other teachers on Microsoft Teams, her district’s software platform, to familiarize herself with the technology.
“We didn’t have a lot of support in terms of suggestions for how to prepare for the upcoming school year,” Hoskie said. “But I think it’s just something that teachers have within themselves to find a solution to things.”
Hoskie has found technology support isn’t the only skill she’s mastering these days. On occasion, the fourth grade teacher also dons the role of grief counselor when a student is dealing with COVID-19.
“I’ll send a message and tell them ‘I understand what they’re going through,” she said. “Then I just give them some time, I’ll tell them you know it’s okay to take some time for yourself and your family. And whenever you’re ready just let me know and we’ll work on the things that you missed in class.”
Recently, she did that when the grandparent of one of her students died of COVID a week before the semester ended.
Hoskie exempted the student from final exams, giving her space to grieve.
“I felt like this family has been through a lot,” Hoskie said. “Sometimes you just have to just make that exception and allow them to deal with their family. Sometimes things are more important than education.”
This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.