Students throughout Valencia County will be better connected for remote learning thanks to mobile hotspots recently purchased by both school districts.
The Belen Board of Education recently approved the purchase of 420 Verizon hotspots for students in the Belen Consolidated Schools district, and the Los Lunas Board of Education approved 300 hotspots from T-Mobile for its students.
BCS used funds from a recently awarded GEER grant to purchase the units at a cost of $71,820, and while the devices were free for Los Lunas Schools there is a $15 per month charge for each unit during remote or hybrid learning.
The GEER grant — the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund — is an education stabilization fund out of the U.S. Department of Education. Under the GEER Fund, the federal government awards grants to governors for the purpose of providing local education agencies, higher education institutions and other education entities with emergency assistance as a result of COVID-19.
BCS Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez said district staff researched and compared hotspots offered by Verizon and T-Mobile, and while the Verizon ones were more expensive, they were higher-quality devices, offered better coverage and had no data limits.
“T-Mobile provides two gigs (of data) but after that, is slows down,” Sanchez said. “Verizon’s data is unlimited. This will give better connectivity for our students. It’s going to cost more but we’re anticipating fewer problems for all students.”
The 300 T-Mobile hotspots for Los Lunas students were purchased using GEER funds in tandem with T-Mobile’s Project 10Million, a nationwide project to help students get connected now during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Each hotspot will have unlimited internet access during remote or hybrid learning,” said Mike Good, director of IT Operations at LLS. “The district plans to utilize GEER funding for this program so that the hotspots will be completely free of charge for eligible students.”
Those devices — and that number purchased — came from a survey sent out at the end of 2020 to parents in the district. Those who qualified were contacted by the district. Each student will get their own device, so households with multiple, qualified students will each have their own hotspot.
“Each eligible student will receive a hotspot, so sharing the device will not be necessary,” Good said. “This will allow students who live in a household with other eligible students to have their own dedicated connection and hotspot ... along with the ability to take the hotspot with them wherever they go, as long as it’s within the region of T-Mobile coverage.”
One frustration Sanchez voiced with the grant itself is the money has to be completely used by the end of the district’s fiscal year on June 30, with no ability to carry over excess funds to the next year.
“It’s frustrating for us. I told you the final cost was $71,820 but the grant total was about $197,000. Our thought was to go into next year with the remainder. Connectivity issues are not going away and we need to provide solutions,” he said.
“We wanted to enter into a longer contract (with Verizon) but the state doesn’t allow a contract to go past the term of the grant. Our hope is somebody will let us use this as carryover and recognize that just because the fiscal year ends, the problem doesn’t go away.”
He continued, saying the GEER grant is specifically for internet connectivity, meaning the excess funds can’t be used to buy additional tablets or laptops for students, for instance.
Belen Board of Education vice president Aubrey Tucker said internet connectivity is a serious issue where he lives, in the southern part of Valencia County.
“It is really good to see the district didn’t get the cheapest cause it was the cheapest,” Tucker said. “They got what was needed and what will fulfill the need. Face it, you get what you pay for.”
During the governor’s State of the State address last month, board member Jim Danner said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham stated she has asked New Mexico legislators to make broadband around the state a priority.
“This is not just a Belen problem; it’s a problem across the state,” Danner said.
To determine the number of devices needed, district staff surveyed parents asking if they had internet at all and if they did, was it sufficient for remote learning. Site principals also made contact with the families served by their schools to help determine connectivity needs.
The district identified 411 families that needed internet access or improvements.
Sanchez said the district decided to order extra units so if a family had a problem with a device, they could simply swap it out for a working one rather than waiting for it to be repaired. Once the devices are received, individual school sites will distribute them to their families.