In New Mexico, Overcoming Challenges of COVID-19 and Addressing the Need for Racial Justice

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By New Mexico Secretary of Education Dr. Ryan Stewart

America’s schools have responded to two radical changes in our society this year: the COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened awareness of institutionalized racism. Both have had massive impacts on our students, and I’m proud to share how New Mexico has worked to better educate children despite these new challenges.

First, New Mexico is a rural state with among the greatest broadband infrastructure challenges in the country, which means internet access has been a perpetual challenge. Students living in remote areas have a harder time accessing remote learning from home. That’s why our Public Education Department (NMPED), together with other agencies like the Department of Information Technology, have collaborated to provide hot spots in community parking lots and on school buses, among other accessible areas. Our Native American communities have benefited from the purchase of thousands of Chromebooks delivered to many of New Mexico’s Indian Pueblos and to school children on the Navajo Nation.

In addition to providing help with internet access and devices, my staff at NMPED have delivered much-needed personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, to our food service workers and bus drivers who have never stopped serving and delivering to families in every corner of the state during the pandemic.

Thanks to the National School Lunch Program, families in need will still receive meals through the end of this year, ensuring that students will have nutritious meals even while they aren’t at school.

My team and I remain committed to the same principles as CCSSO: to continuously improve schools for every student, to create multiple pathways for student and teacher success, and to maintain high expectations for students. That’s why we’ve brought in a team of mentors who have been reaching out to families needing to keep their students engaged online, and why we’re providing training to teachers in virtual learning to ensure that educational opportunity – even during a pandemic – remains rigorous and student-centered.

As we embark on our carefully crafted hybrid system of learning part-time on campus and part-time from home, we are using lessons gleaned from online learning last spring to improve outcomes for students and their families.

Additionally, we take on this critically important work of addressing social inequities amid the ongoing national conversation about race and justice in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement. As a Black leader in a state in which Blacks make up only 3% of the population, and in which our Native American and Hispanic students communities have long been underserved, the complexities of race in schools and the urgency with which change is needed remain front and center in our mission and vision as an agency.

Despite the ceaseless and myriad new responsibilities brought on by the pandemic, the NMPED continues to push forward to revamp our social studies standards to ensure a comprehensive and inclusive curriculum that accurately represents the contributions of our diverse racial, cultural, and ethnic citizenry. In addition, we are working with experts in Native American education to bolster our indigenous language programs and expand access to dual credit programs and career and technical education programs to more students across the state.

I’m proud of our successes and confident our New Mexico community will overcome the COVID-19 challenges and will boldly face the racial justice challenges we face, together.

Dr. Ryan Stewart is the New Mexico secretary of education. He is the first African American to serve as the state’s chief state school officer.

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