SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Lawyers representing New Mexico students say the state's attempts to provide internet access and learning devices to children are “woefully insufficient,” while a top education officials argues that progress has been made during the pandemic.

With in-person learning banned by state officials until mid-January and plans for hybrid learning scrapped for the vast majority of students earlier this year, the inability to access remote classes has been a challenge for many rural and low-income students, particularly Native American children living on tribal lands.

“We were hopeful children could return to in-person learning in early fall, but that didn’t happen," said Maria Archuleta with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which has been involved in the case. “Access to technology was essential before the pandemic and will be when the pandemic is over. Right now, it is absolutely necessary. Beyond critical. Kids simply can’t do without it.”

Education officials across the state’s 89 school districts have purchased tens of thousands of laptops and worked with the governor and the Public Education Department to provide Wi-Fi hotspots in many areas during the pandemic.

In response to the motion, the Public Education Department highlighted state efforts to support increased internet access during the pandemic.

Spokeswoman Judy Robinson pointed to the north central Peñasco school district mentioned in the motion, saying it has gone from having 50 families without internet access in August to just two.

“We have made this progress just recently. It has been an effort that has taken eight months,” Peñasco schools Supt. Lisa Hamilton said.

But thousands of children are still offline, and an untold number have limited internet connectivity that doesn’t allow them to upload or download video. Some students have relied on their parent’s cellphone hotspots, which can run out of data or can’t be left at home when the parent goes to work.

While some school districts have tested connection speeds at student homes, the state hasn't.

In a motion filed Tuesday, lawyers asked state District Judge Matthew Wilson to order the state to connect more children to online learning by immediately identifying students who lack laptops or tablets and providing internet vouchers for at-risk households.

About 9% of New Mexico students don’t live on the broadband grid, Archuleta said.

The motion also seeks to force the state to provide Wi-Fi hotspots immediately while it works to lay fiber optic cable to reach students’ homes.

Separate lawsuits over the adequacy of New Mexico's education system were originally filed against then-Gov. Susana Martinez in 2014 and went to trial in 2017. The center’s lawyers work as part of the team litigating the case, which merged the long-standing concerns of Native Americans, English language learners, the emotionally and physically disabled and low-income students.

The lawsuit has driven lawmaker's conversations about education funding and the state's policies.

State officials have argued that they share the goals of the litigants, they just don't want courts micro-managing policy. In response the filing, Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said the state is committed to providing children with what they need to succeed.

“The problem of internet access, so critical for education during this pandemic, is not new to New Mexico and will not be resolved entirely in one year. Nevertheless, with the help of our partners, we have been able to put thousands of digital devices into the hands of New Mexico students who lacked them, and we have expanded internet access and quality of access across the state,” Stewart said.

The lawsuit also is supported by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The groups estimate that around 80% of New Mexico’s children are represented by the lawsuit.

The right to an “adequate” education is guaranteed in New Mexico’s constitution. But the state hasn’t met that standard, according to the courts. The plaintiffs marked a key victory in 2018 when a judge ruled the state’s education system was in violation of the constitution.

Earlier this year, Wilson rejected Lujan Grisham’s request to dismiss the suit, saying the state hadn’t complied with the court’s order to fix the education system.


Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.