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N.M. Education Sec. Lauds Internet Gains, Urges Improvement

New Mexico Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart acknowledged the significant gains made in connecting students to remote learning tools, but said there is still work to be done throughout the state.

(TNS) — New Mexico Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart on Friday touted gains the state has made in increasing Internet access for students and tracking down about half of those who fell off school rolls.

But Stewart admitted more work must be done to help kids thrive amid the COVID-19 pandemic. During a virtual news conference, Stewart also said that while many younger children will able to return to classrooms in January, the department still has no timeline for opening campuses to middle and high school students.

Equity was at the heart of his discussion on where the state's education system stands at the halfway point of 2020-21, when students largely have been learning from home via online platforms.

Earlier this week, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, in a state District Court motion, estimated 23 percent of state residents still lack broadband Internet service. The motion, filed on behalf of plaintiffs in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit, asks the court to order the state to provide computers and Internet access to all at-risk students.

Stewart said in the news conference the state has helped more students gain access to the Internet and has provided laptops and tablets to ensure they are prepared for remote learning during the pandemic. He pointed to $40 million school districts have invested in technology another $6 million from the Public Education Department to address the issue.

The department also is exploring taking part in pilot projects on satellite Internet, which would lessen the need for fiber optic wiring that is lacking in rural areas and potentially accelerate closing the technological gap, Stewart said.

"The innovations that are happening," he said, "they are rapidly helping to move away from having to dig a trench and putting fiber [optic cable] in. Putting more into wireless can really be a game changer."

The Public Education Department, meanwhile, has located some 5,000 of the roughly 12,000 students who were unaccounted for when the school year began, Stewart said. The state determined most of those students, initially believed to be missing from online classes, had enrolled elsewhere or opted for home schooling.

Stewart noted about 300 of those students indicated they planned to return to public schools or are in a "wait-and-see" mode.

Hybrid learning — a combination of in-person instruction in classrooms and remote learning from home — is scheduled to resume for elementary schools Jan. 18. But Stewart said he wasn't certain when older students would begin such a model. Their return to classrooms depends on county-by-county improvements in "gating criteria" related to the pandemic, such as test positivity rates and the numbers of new cases.

Currently, none of the state's 33 counties meets the thresholds for opening school doors: a 5 percent test positivity rate and an average of eight daily cases per 100,000 people.

If those figures improve, it can go a long way toward bringing more students back into classrooms, Stewart said.

"I tell this to the middle and high school students in the focus groups that I get a chance to talk to," Stewart said. "I don't want any of our middle school and high school students to lose hope about in-person learning."

Stewart also acknowledged students are struggling academically, especially high school upperclassmen.

He said 32,348 students have been referred to the state's Engage New Mexico program, designed to keep kids motivated by offering them support, and 9,400 have enrolled in academic coaching.

Stewart's agency hopes to use $95 million from an education reform fund to support remediation efforts. The funding would help boost the number of school counselors and advisers, add more instructional time to make up for lost learning during the pandemic and pay for professional development for teachers to learn accelerated instructional methods.

"Our goal is to have a comprehensive solution where everyone knows they have a resource to turn to if they're struggling," Stewart said. "There is ongoing coaching and support throughout the state."

©2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican,Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.