Rural school districts continue to struggle with internet access as online classes start
LAS CRUCES - Across New Mexico, rural regions still have limited access to internet, which has caused school districts that must deliver class instruction online to find solutions to quickly get students connected.
Although districts such as the Gadsden Independent School District have been able to distribute devices and hotspots to the population of students who lack one or the other, some districts haven't found a foolproof solution.
On July 23, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that all schools will need to be exclusively online until at least Labor Day.
This has made school districts rethink their fall plans and work to provide internet access to their students.
Many districts have been able to provide devices like laptops or tablets to students as needed, but even with these devices families are still struggling to connect.
"This is definitely an issue, (not just) across Luna County, but across the state," said Arsenio Romero, Deming Public Schools superintendent. "This is definitely something that affects the equity of education."
According to the United States Census, 72% of households in New Mexico had a broadband internet subscription from 2014-2018. This leaves more than a quarter of the population without internet service statewide.
About 84% of New Mexico households had a computer at home according to the same data.
"This pandemic has really drawn out that (inequity) that happens when it comes to having students have opportunities to increase their knowledge through other learning platforms," Romero said.
Hot spot solutions
One solution that GISD has found success with was distributing mobile hot spots that supply internet access to any nearby device with the proper password.
A survey performed by the district showed that roughly 15% of students had unreliable or no internet service, according to GISD spokesman Luis Villalobos. Villalobos said that the district bought and distributed 2,500 hot spots to families with students enrolled.
Hot spots are feasible solutions for families, providing portable internet that gives students the opportunity to connect from home where they may not have internet access.
GISD also started a bus hot spot service, which prepared buses to venture into four locations across the district to provide service for an hour a day during the summer. The district intended to expand this daily access if the need increased — but, for now, GISD will not be offering these services this semester.
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Villalobos said that these bus services were established as a temporary fix in anticipation of the full distribution of the family hot spots.
"Now that we think we have most families with poor connections covered by those hot spots, the... use of bus hot spots are now a secondary stopgap measure," Villalobos said in an email. "If we continue to have need in those areas, we definitely will use bus hot spots again. The district will make that decision based on feedback from parents on connection issues."
In Farmington, the school district has taken a similar route in providing hot spots to students.
At Farmington Municipal Schools, about 500 students reported having an insufficient internet connection, according to superintendent Eugene Schmidt.
Schmidt said that they've already distributed some hot spots and are waiting for the next batch to come in, which families can pick up at the district office.
Other ways districts are fighting for internet
Another method FMS has looked into is working with local internet service providers and seeing what sort of free or reduced services they can offer to families.
Spokeswoman Renee Lucero said that some areas on the Navajo Nation have been connected to internet through the district's help in telling them what options they have as far as service providers.
"We're just helping families (by) saying, 'You have a TV cable company, and that cable company for an extra couple of dollars will offer cheaper internet for you,'" Schmidt said. "Just raising awareness of where these services are."
At Hatch Valley Public Schools, superintendent Michael Chavez said that poor signal leads to even more trouble.
Mobile hot spots, although a great solution for a lack of internet connection, still require cellular service to function. For homes out of reach of cellular service altogether, a hot spot wouldn't fix the issue.
Chavez said that many families in the district have subscribed to internet services, seeing the necessity of access during this distance-learning environment.
For those who still do not have access, HVPS has installed an external antenna at three of its school sites that push out the school WiFi signal farther. Students will be able to reach the signal at a distance and log in from any grade level, according to Chavez. The three sites are at Garfield Elementary, Hatch Valley Middle and Hatch Valley High.
Chavez said that HVPS is also looking into WiFi hot spots to put on buses that drive out to more rural locations to make internet more accessible.
"We've got software, and we've got really good learning tools," Chavez said. "But we don't necessarily have the bandwidth to be able to access some of these areas."
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In Deming, similar issues have arisen with a lack of internet access and service.
"There's just so many parts of the county that are very rural, and there's not even the ability to have internet or even cell service in some areas," said Romero.
Deming Public Schools has been working with internet providers to help provide low-cost solutions for families, according to Romero.
The district has also worked with local sites to get internet access up and running. Students can visit local libraries and theaters that the school has coordinated with to work on online school work.
Additionally, DPS serves students who live in Palomas, Mexico, which causes another layer of obstacles with limited travel due to the coronavirus.
Romero and his team at DPS have been working with the village of Columbus, which borders Palomas on the U.S. side, to put in access points for internet that are closer to the students who live in Palomas. Romero also said the district has been working with the officials in Palomas who runs the city, and the government is now providing expanded wireless access at the local library.
Even with these solutions, Romero still worries that students in the outskirts of the rural areas may have trouble getting access.
"This is where we're starting," Romero said. "I know that it does not fix everything, but it's a good start for us. We're going to keep trying to push really hard to try to get that access for everybody."