In about a month, the 2020-2021 school year will begin in New Mexico. There are a lot of unanswered questions families have to face over the next four weeks, and they are a lot more complex than social distancing at Walmart on the tax-free back-to-school shopping weekend coming up at the beginning of August.
First, as things stand, we can expect half of all working parents in the state to be forced to consider leaving the full-time workforce. Current guidelines call for most students to have two in-classroom days per week, and three days of remote learning. Daycare, if available (it’s not), is not an option; sending kids to daycare to remote-learn is no different than sending them to school. Families of young children are expected to have one parent or adult at home three days a week.
Given our culture, I would guess that more than 50% of the stay-at-home parents will be women. So we can expect thousands of New Mexican women to leave the workforce, if they haven’t already this year. At any rate, someone will be staying home three days of the work week.
The latest statistics from Kids Count (a nationally prominent children’s service non-profit operated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation which operates locally as New Mexico Voices for Children) show that 41% of New Mexico’s children live in a single-parent household. Moreover, 26% of our children live in poverty. Keeping parents from working to care for their school-age children and monitor remote learning three days a week is unlikely to improve our child poverty numbers.
Which brings me to the next issue: remote learning in a state with lower subscription rates to high-speed broadband, particularly in rural areas like the East Mountains. According to broadband industry organization BroadbandNow, 78.8% of Edgewood residents, 75.5% of Tijeras residents and 61.2% of Moriarty residents have access to broadband internet. In 2020, the situation is essentially if you have cable, you can have internet. The primary cable provider in the state has recently expanded its low-income access so that any family or individual that qualifies for government assistance can get internet access. Which is cool, except we then expect low-income families to have cable accounts, computers, and knowledge of this program.
But wireless telephone connection, you say! Surely we can connect our kids with Verizon! Um, no. Cell signal reliability is a problem in Albuquerque, much less the East Mountains. More crucially, how many computers, tablets, smartphones does a family have? Can all three kids work on the same device at the same time? Likely not.
Then there is the question of whether remote learning works. Early estimates show remote learning widens learning inequity: poor students and minority students do not fare as well. Chalkbeat, an online education news site, reviewed spring 2020 data and noted that in low-income schools, only 51% of teachers reported students participated daily in distance learning. 84% of teachers in affluent schools reported daily student participation.
A number of articles and commentators have touched on each of these problems, yet one glaring issue seems to have gone unnoticed: What are public school teachers with preschool or school-age children to do? I can’t find a stat, but I would guess that a large number of our teachers in the state have young children at home. I see nothing in the PED guidance issued late last month that addresses where educators are to put their children while they put in a five-day teaching week, except one reference to making empty classrooms available to teachers who lack a work-from-home environment. Does that mean they bring their kids? Do they manage their kids’ remote learning as well as their classroom students?
PED put out its reentry plan on June 20, just a day before the state Senate approved the pandemic and oil crisis amendments to the 2020 budget. It’s a shame the governor and the majority caucus didn’t offer legislators the opportunity to weigh in on, and perhaps identify funding for, the looming crisis facing New Mexico families next month. But not to worry. The Legislature passed, and the governor signed a revised budget slashing remaining capital infrastructure projects (and the accompanying job creation), while leaving intact a $300 million “rainy day” fund for the Early Childhood Trust Fund. I hope they realize in Santa Fe that monsoon season is in July, so it’s about as rainy now as it is going to get.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat.