Tina Dominguez and partner AJ Jimenez work on schoolwork with their children Marcelino Herrera, Merlinda Herrera and J'Avien Jimenez at their home near Española.

In Española and across NM, remote learning is a virtual struggle

Five-year-old J’Avien Jimenez lives in a blended family in a home near Española, with five siblings ranging in age from 5 to 14. All of them are attending schools online. Jimenez’s first kindergarten class was dedicated to finding the mute button and turning it on and off. He caught on quickly.

He also frequently uses the chat box to enter strings of letters, though this usually isn’t requested,” said Joan Davidge-Cisneros, his teacher at Tony E. Quintana Elementary in Española. The bigger challenge is keeping him connected to the internet. 

The bandwidth at Jimenez’s home is so poor, one of the older girls has to live with her grandmother during the week so she can attend her remote classes; another child is sent to stay with an aunt nearby. The internet simply doesn’t work with so many people under one roof. 

“I had to sacrifice my two kids Monday through Friday so everyone could go to school online,” Tina Dominguez, their mother, said. 

Dominguez feels this is her only option, given where she lives. Espanola has some of the slowest internet speeds in the country. 

The Española Public School District typically has an internet connection speed that’s half the national average, and when all 234 students log on, the speeds dive to near zero. A similar challenge is faced by scores of students across New Mexico — a state where many areas have no broadband and many families can’t afford computers or broadband subscription plans.

The economic and technological divides were around long before the coronavirus arrived. But the pandemic has shone an especially harsh light on the inequalities of educational and digital access.

A third of students across the state lacked access to an “internet-capable” device, a survey by the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority found this spring. One in five had no access to the internet. Connection problems on remote tribal lands were severe: Up to 55 percent of students at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools didn’t have internet service at home, the state Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC) reported in July.

New Mexico as a whole has some of the worst wireless connection problems in the nation, ranking 48th for the percentage of households with broadband internet subscriptions, the LESC noted.

School districts have been trying to compensate. Laptops and other tech tools have been distributed to needy students across the state. Several telecom companies have also been running to catch up. 

In presentations to the LESC in August, various carriers described offering discounted rates, adding wi-fi hot spots and developing “educational enrichment hubs” to help with internet access. An estimated 196,000 premises in New Mexico lack broadband, according to Sacred Wind Communications, one of the presenters. 

“COVID has made us focus more on the human element as we discuss the lack of adequate broadband across the state,” said John Badal, CEO of Sacred Wind Communications, which serves some of the most remote areas in northwestern New Mexico, including 22 chapters on the Navajo Nation. 

Badal said COVID-19 was exposing New Mexico’s vulnerabilities on more than just the educational front. Lack of broadband, he said, translates into a lack of health care, economic development and employment, particularly because people need to work from home.

J'Avien Jimenez, age 5, participates in Joan Davidge-Cisneros’ online kindergarten class at his home in La Mesilla, using a laptop provided by the school district.

Online classes, lost students

In classrooms, the vulnerabilities were quickly apparent. In March, when schools first closed due to the coronavirus, only 54 percent of New Mexico students actively attended online classes, legislative reports showed. The rate fell to 47 percent by the end of the school year. 

The loss of learning could have lifelong impacts, according to a June report by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. The shift to virtual classrooms could widen the already sizeable education achievement gap in the country and cause children of color and low-income students to fall behind in school by seven months to a year, the study found. The lack of social and emotional support could increase anxiety and isolation, permanently impacting students’ motivation to stay in school at all. 

Joan Davidge-Cisneros teaches her kindergarten class online at Tony E. Quintana Elementary School in Española.

Efforts in Española

Española Public Schools Superintendent Fred Trujillo said the district is doing everything it can to meet the challenges. The district supplied each student with either an iPad or a Chromebook. It purchased jet packs that serve as hot spots for families who do not have internet access at home, among other measures. Professional development options were offered throughout the summer to help educators with the Google classroom platform, Trujillo said.

“It is true that the change in delivery has been a challenge at times — however, we must meet the needs of our students,” he said.

Some teachers are grappling with more than technological worries, however. They are also experiencing a kind of “secondary trauma” from struggling families, said Doris Rivera, K-12 professional development coordinator at the LANL Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to families and education in Northern New Mexico.

“Teachers are having to walk parents through lessons and talk students through their anxieties — in the evenings and on Saturday or Sunday — because they want them to be successful,” Rivera said. The teachers’ biggest fears aren’t about schoolwork, she added. “They are worried about some of their students’ safety. Will they be able to eat or be safe if there are drugs and alcohol in the home or a parent who just lost their job?”

Parents often lack the expertise to help children with online learning — an added burden. “Even if they have the Chromebook, many parents don’t have the knowledge to drive it,” said Roger Montoya, artistic director of Moving Arts Española, a nonprofit that offers low-cost visual and performing arts education, free meals and academic support for Northern New Mexico children. The program has served hundreds of high school kids on the verge of dropping out, many of whom struggle with poverty, childhood trauma and substance abuse. Now, they have a broadband struggle, too.

AJ Jimenez helps his son, J'Avien, with schoolwork on a laptop at home, south of Española.

Virtual kindergarten

Davidge-Cisneros said she’s grateful that her 10 kindergarten students, including J’Avien Jimenez, usually show up for virtual class. She drives each day from her home in Abiquiu to her classroom in Española to be near her classroom supplies. She initially hoped for faster wi-fi speeds in the building. But once the other teachers and students signed into their classes, connection speeds plummeted. Little faces were frozen, their speech became jagged and sometimes the sessions cut off. She boosted her Verizon phone plan and now uses her personal cell phone hot spot to conduct classes. 

School administrators are supportive, Davidge-Cisneros said, but she wishes she could get even more technical training. “It’s such a learning curve to gather digital material. The training we’ve had just isn’t sufficient, so we’re constantly having to train ourselves.”

Her teacher-training packet came with PDFs for class presentations, for example. But PDFs don’t work for kindergarteners, she said. “In kindergarten, they can’t read the directions. So how do I embed sound files for their exercises?” 

Tina Dominguez and her son Marcelino Herrera at home on a typical online school day in La Mesilla, south of Española.

Teachers on call

Dominguez, for her part, appreciates the support she’s gotten from teachers. Davidge-Cisneros and others have given out their personal phone numbers to call if and when students have computer problems or questions about school.

She said she speaks to at least one teacher every day, and also to therapists and doctors.

Not only is connectivity a problem, but Dominguez says all her kids have ADHD and require medication, which can make school days chaotic. Many days feel overwhelming, and she can’t wait for in-person classes to resume. “They need help. They need to be in school,” she said.

Until that day comes, Dominguez said she’s determined to get her kids an education, whatever it takes. “I choose to not ever give up,” she said. “This isn’t the first and it won’t be the last battle. I think positive, and that’s why these kids are going to get somewhere in life.”