A lack of internet access is not a new problem for many families in the state of New Mexico, but the divide has only become more apparent in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
Nowhere is the internet divide clearer than in the classroom, as students battle both computer and web access. Latino Decisions and its partners highlighted some concerns Latino families have about access to education in a new survey.
Almost 500 Latino families across the state were interviewed by phone or online in June, a fact that Dr. Gabriel Sanchez, the principal and lead researcher at Latino Decisions, is excited by.
“I think the fact that so many Hispanic families are willing to share their opinions with us is reflective of people wanting to have their voice considered as districts make their decisions,” Sanchez said. “One of the big themes that emerged from the survey was challenges with digital divide and basic access to not only Wi-Fi or high-speed internet, but just internet in general as well as other online tools to be able to support their children with distance learning.”
The results indicate that 28 percent of surveyed Latino families can only access the internet from cell phones, and that 21 percent have no access to the internet at all.
“When you combine those two things in an environment where using high speed internet is incredibly important for being able to support children's education, not only do some families, a sizable one out of every five not have access period, those that [do] only have internet access to their cell phone,” Sanchez said. “That's incredibly challenging when you're trying to navigate the software that most school districts are going to require for families if we have to move back to distance learning.”
Here in Las Cruces, the district is working to address the technical problems students are facing. In the last year, Las Cruces Public Schools has ordered approximately 10,000 devices for at home use.
They’ve also assisted in establishing internet connections for those in need through Comcast and hotspots.
Joshua Silver, the chief technology officer for the district, addressed technology concerns at the most recent school board meeting.
“We’ll be able to move really in collaboration with the principals and really begin that process of identifying the computers in the building that are going to be checked out,” Silver said. “And then finally, working with families that identified, at least initially identified, they do not have internet access…that really is a very fluid number. We saw that in March that someone who has internet access in March that does not necessarily mean their family has internet in April.”
Even with district assistance, Javier Martínez, from Partnership for Community Action, says that more is needed to fully support Latino students. 74 percent of responses indicated that online school has made it hard to communicate with teachers and that learning is more difficult.
Part of the difficultly, he says, can be attributed to the extra strain teachers are currently under.
“One of the things we saw between the end of March and the end of May, was that you had teachers pulling triple duty sometimes. Teaching, you know, social work and technical assistance for families using technology,” Martínez said. “And that's unfair. It's unfair for the teachers. It's unfair for the student and it’s unfair for the family.”
The Las Cruces based organization, NM CAFé was one of the partners on the survey. Director of Community Organizing Johana Bencomo stresses the importance of bridging language barriers.
“The thing that’s most important is, and we've been doing this with a lot of our partners statewide since this pandemic began, is just really bridging the communication gap and ensuring that our families have good information and relevant information in Spanish,” Bencomo said.
Above all, the survey found that the Latino community is eager for communication from their districts.
“They're hungry for opportunities to connect and be engaged with their young ones education,” Sanchez said.