As published in the Las Cruces Bulletin – August 21, 2020
by Tracey Bryan
COVID has driven change in connectivity and community in the strangest ways.
Grocery shopping and eating out has become less “mobile” physically while being more technologically “mobile” through app and online ordering.
For many, Facebook is now the place we “go” to church or learn the latest updates on our state’s response to COVID 19.
Our public governmental meetings now bring elected officials together to deliberate public policy decisions via Zoom.
And, of course, education and (for many) work can now be done from home, thanks to Zoom and a host of other online platforms.
This digital cultural shift has been uncomfortable at best. At worst, the digital divide is cutting off access to these things for a sizable portion of families in our community. Digital access is key to interviewing for jobs, attending virtual job fairs, and, yes, going back to school. No one would dispute that this is the strangest start to a school year ever, and it will impact everyone in our collective set of educational institutions.
Just how big is the digital divide in Doña Ana County? Thanks to the great work of the Center for Community Analysis (CCA) at New Mexico State University, we have a pretty good idea.
The CCA mapped access (or lack thereof) to both broadband and devices for each of our county’s three school districts. The website (https://cca.nmsu.edu/interactive-data-dashboards/access-to-technology-within-nm/) breaks down according to:
- Devices (computer and mobile)
- Internet subscriptions
- Cellular plans
What is clear is that, just like the rest of the state, families in our rural districts (Hatch and Gadsden) have larger access gaps than Las Cruces.
Families with no internet subscription:
- 25% in Las Cruces
- 41% in Gadsden
- 54% in Hatch
The data also shows households earning less than $20,000 are the most likely to not have internet access in all three districts.
Households with computing devices varied by district, as well:
- 87% in Las Cruces
- 78% in Hatch
- 66% in Gadsden
This shows you the herculean task our educators have faced head-on and worked all summer to overcome to ensure the students of our community can keep learning and growing in their education.
The Las Cruces district alone provided thousands of computers and devices, as well as purchasing hundreds of hot spots to those who lacked the ability to access the internet through other means. Doña Ana Community College has provided several hundred devices for some of their students who met financial aid thresholds. New Mexico State University, as the state’s Land Grant Institution, has put their facilities statewide to work on this issue, creating hot spots at county extension offices and offering wi-fi that extends into the parking lots of their facilities.
They really are all to be applauded for both listening to the needs of students and families and mobilizing resources, so this year could start as smoothly as possible in a fully virtual environment.
Thanks to their efforts, our community will see a bonus benefit: helping our families recover economically, too, by increasing their ability to technology and access for reemployment and reskilling.
As of August 10, 10,675 people in our county are unemployed because of COVID. Re-employment and reskilling for new and different types of jobs are highly dependent upon digital access to online college and career courses, virtual job fairs, virtual job interviews, job searches, and remote work for those whose jobs have transitioned to a digital environment.
Equal access (to computers, pads, mobile technology and the internet) helps everyone in our community access equal opportunities to learn and work. Thanks to the combined efforts of our education leaders, we are well positioned to take advantage of every opportunity to advance our community’s academic progress and economic recovery…hopefully reemerging from COVID stronger than before.