Two local school districts have received nearly a half million dollars in grant funding from Facebook to make technology purchases that will directly benefit students doing distance learning.

Belen Consolidated Schools received $300,000, and Los Lunas Schools got $150,000 from the social media giant.

BCS will use the grant to buy an additional 10 iPads and about 500 laptops, as well as graphing calculators for students in upper level math classes.

Los Lunas Schools will purchase a video conferencing application, mobile hotspots to support WiFi connectivity, and additional iPads, as well as licensing and privacy software.

Both districts have been using full-time remote learning since mid-March when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered all schools to close due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

At its April 28 meeting, the Belen Board of Education members unanimously accepted the Facebook grant.

“We are so proud to be able to announce a COVID-19 education relief grant for $300,000,” said William Marks, the Facebook Data Center’s community development regional manager for the western region. “Helping the teachers and students in schools in Valencia County incredibly important to us at Facebook.”

Marks said the grants are primarily meant to provide laptops to students, and any money left after the purchase of computers is to be used for additional technology so students can continue to learn from home.

BCS Superintendent Diane Vallejos said the grant was a tremendous opportunity for the district, the majority of which would be used for laptops.

The superintendent said the decision to purchase iPads as well was due to some students having an easier time learning with the tablets.

“The third thing we’ll get are graphing calculators. We have classroom sets at Belen and Infinity high schools but many students don’t have them at home,” she said. “These are very important for them to make strides in Algebra 1 and 2 and geometry. We have gotten some quotes and the calculators alone will run about $30,000.”

Board member Aubrey Tucker said the grant would address a tremendous need within the district.

“Especially families with multiple children at home trying to use one computer. Now there’s Mom and Dad as well, trying to work,” Tucker said.

Vallejos said there were about 1,400 students among the two high schools and the middle school.

“At all of our sites, we’ve identified students who don’t have access to any device at home — about 15 to 16 percent,” she said. “Those are the priority. Then we will look at adding devices to households with more than one student.”

Distribution of the laptops and iPads will start with high school students then move down through the grades, the superintendent said.

This is the second technology donation BCS has received since it started remote learning due to COVID-19. Last month, Valencia Power donated 106 laptops to the district for Belen High School students.

Sonia Allen, director of educational technology at LLS, said the district believes technology is a tool used to support and enhance learning for students.

“… (it) provides equitable access for all, and affords teachers and students a means to connect, collaborate, and personalize their learning,” Allen said. “Thank you, Facebook, for giving our students and educators the tools needed to support our community and bring our world closer together.”

Belen Board of Education President Jim Danner called the grants a true community project.

“We consider (Facebook) so much a part of our community,” Danner said.

“I can’t say enough about what Facebook is doing for our community; we are so glad Facebook decided to come to Valencia County.”

Also at the April 28 meeting, Chris Soiles, owner of local wireless internet provider Rio Cities Internet, presented the board members with a plan that would help expand his coverage area while offering reduced cost and free internet service plans to district students and employees.

“It’s great to get the technology into their hands, but it’s not worth much if you can’t video conference or submit an assignment,” Soiles said.

Rio Cities offers fast internet access with dedicated speeds that won’t be slowed by additional users or the weather, he said.

The board unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding with Soiles and his company which will allow him to place wireless equipment on district buildings to provide better access to areas it already serves and expand coverage to areas that don’t have internet service at all.

Vallejos said the initial equipment placement would most likely be at the district agricultural farm on River Road near the bridge over the Rio Grande.

“Once the equipment is installed, at the company’s expense, it would cost the district about $2 a month to power the antenna,” she said.

Tucker asked if Rio Cities would be able to get service to families in his district in the far southern part of the district near La Promesa Elementary, which is in Socorro County.

Soiles said his coverage area already includes part of Veguita, and a repeater on La Promesa would push service south.

The micro-repeaters Soiles would install have an average range of five miles.

In return, Soiles has agreed to provide a minimum of three accounts to families that cannot afford internet, with the guidance of site principals and administrators.

“I’ve already sent an email out to my existing customers, and anyone who is staff or administration, PTO, just mention the email, and I’ll upgrade them to the next service level for free,” he said. “I’m in the process of creating discounted, student service for about $20 a month.

“It’s going to be basic access. You’ll be able to do Zoom but it’s probably not going to be great for Netflix and it’s probably going to lag on Fortnite.”

The board also unanimously approved a $7,000 grant from cell service provider T-Mobile to purchase supplies for its grab-and-go lunch service.

“This will be used for the additional expenses of packing the lunches, such as the brown paper bags, portion cups and other items needed to package meals for home deliveries,” David Carter, the district’s director or support services.

Vallejos said with the district serving on average 4,500 meals a day, so the items were very important to the continuation of the program.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.