New Mexico Must Provide Internet, Devices to At-Risk Remote Learners, Court Rules

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The ruling is the latest development in a years-long case alleging that the state’s education department failed to provide uniform public education to Native Americans, low-income children and others.

Education officials in New Mexico must provide computers and high-speed internet to students who don’t have them, according to the latest ruling in a years-long lawsuit alleging that the state was failing to provide uniform education to all students.

“Children who are lacking access to internet and technology for remote learning are not getting much of an education, if at all, let alone one that is sufficient to make them college and career ready,” state District Judge Matthew Wilson said at the April 30 hearing, according to the Associated Press.

Wilson’s decision came in response to a complaint from the plaintiffs in the original Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, in which a judge ruled previously that New Mexico had “violated the rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a uniform statewide system of free public schools sufficient for their education.” 

At-risk students included low-income students, English-language learners, students with disabilities and Native American children, the ruling noted.

The new complaint, filed last year, alleged that the state had failed “to provide all at-risk public school students—especially in rural districts serving predominantly Native American students—with essential technology” to participate in remote learning. Lawyers for the plaintiffs asked the court to ensure that “all at-risk students in New Mexico...are provided digital devices and remote access to high-speed internet,” along with funding for school districts to provide adequate tech support to keep their students connected.

Wilson agreed, telling state officials to determine which “at-risk students” don’t have “dedicated digital devices” or high-speed internet, then provide them with what they need, including transportation if they live in an area where reliable broadband isn’t available. The state must also provide funding for “sufficient, qualified IT staff” to keep devices and the internet up and running as needed, according to a news release from the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

“Thousands of students are being denied their constitutionally required education sufficient to become college and career ready,” Preston Sanchez, an attorney with the nonprofit who argued the case, said in a statement. “Many are getting no education at all. The state has to be accountable to New Mexico’s students and families and make access to their education a priority.”

The ruling came a week after the state’s Public Education Department issued its last update on schools returning to in-person learning. At that point, 51% of students had returned to the classroom, according to data from the department.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in other states amid the pandemic, including in California, where seven families said the switch to remote learning “directly and disproportionately” affected minority students. In New York, eight parents and guardians of students with disabilities said that city and state education officials had failed “to provide services and programs consistent with these students’ [individualized education plans] during remote learning.” 

A third suit, filed in October by two parents in Colorado, asked the Boulder Valley School District to offer in-person instruction five days per week for students with disabilities, noting that their children’s learning plans required a “type of physical, hands-on instruction that cannot be met through online instruction.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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