School closures isolate rural students

CUBA, NM (AP) – The arrival of the school bus in the afternoon at Cyliss Castillo’s home, on the far edge of a mesa, breaks down in the long days of boredom and isolation for the high school age group.

The driver hands over the food in white plastic bags, collects Castillo’s school assignments, and is happy to talk before a few conversations before heading to another home.

The closure of classrooms and the transition to distance education due to the coronavirus left Castillo and other students in this school district on the sparsely populated edge of the Navajo Nation of New Mexico and isolated him deeply – cut off from direct human contact and in many cases not connected to the grid.

Like many of its neighbors, Castillo does not have electricity, let alone the Internet.

This is another way for a pandemic to bridge the gap between shortages and gaps in the United States.

– There’s not much to do here. You clean, pick up trash or build stuff. Like, I built that shed there, ”Castillo, 18, said, pointing to a sloping plywood shed.

“Hopefully, hopefully we’ll be back in school next semester,” he said. – I don’t like the internet. I love being, you know, at school, learning. It’s just not me. I find it a lot easier and much better than being here, doing nothing. “

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The Cuban Independent School District, a village of 800 people, has been constantly moving buses to deliver schools to students living in widely segregated cabins, trailers, RVs and other structures on the tribal, federal and county huge boards. Earth.

On the routes, the buses carry school assignments, art supplies, meals, and counselors who check in with students with online bullying, abuse, suicidal thoughts, or other problems.

The buses are lifebuoys for families in the Cuban school district, nearly half of whom are Spanish, half are Native American, including many Navajo-speaking English-speaking students.

Many do not have running water. Castillo and others charge their school-edition laptops without electricity with car batteries or in a relative’s house. One student sent his laptop to the buses to be charged at the school. Internet service is not yet available or is prohibitively expensive.

For students without home internet, buses bring USB drives with assignments and video courses from teachers. Some students, like Castillo, eventually asked for paper packages because of the difficulty of charging their laptops.

As COVID-19 cases in New Mexico rise to their highest level ever, it is unclear when the district will resume personal classes.

The district is adapting to the challenges on record, with a high school graduation rate well above the state average of 83%. It has long used a ‘community school’ approach in which social workers, nurses and teachers help students around the clock, not just during the school day, with the theory that they will perform better in their studies if their home life can get better.

Chromebooks were issued to all students in 2019, long before the coronavirus broke out. This facilitated the transition to distance learning in March when school buildings were shut down.

Other rural areas in the country also offer similar ways to connect with students who were otherwise torn apart during a pandemic.

In San Joaquin, California, about 48 miles west of Fresno, the Unified School District of the Lowlands found at the beginning of the pandemic that students would work rather than do school work.

– We’d call kids from the fields. They picked peaches, ”said Andre Pecina, assistant supervisor, who noted that only 40% of high school students participated in distance learning. “After COVID was done, the parents said,‘ Let’s go to work. “

To bring students back, the district approached parents by phone to hold teacher conferences early in the school year and ordered hundreds of Internet hotspots. It also delivers school materials and electronic tools to students.

In New Mexico, before buses left Cuban High School every day, about 25 cafe workers, the bus driver, and other staff spent more than an hour filling them with milk, production, prepared meals, toilet paper, and other necessities for families.

One day in late October, Victoria Dominguez, a district counselor, was on board to check on two suicidal students. One of the skateboards brought shoes. In the spring, a filtering system for messages sent by students signaled one or two signals a week for signs of potential emotional problems. He now sees dozens in a single week.

– I’m worried about the winter months. It will be darker. It gets colder and you can’t go outside, ”Dominguez said.

As the COVID-19 rate soared, the school switched to bus transportation the next day every day.

“They still get the same amount of food, but they won’t achieve the same amount of human contact,” he said.

There is a house every few miles along the bus route. The Castillos built their cabin from scratch and also used a small motorhome.

From the grammar school, the road from asphalt to gravel became deeply furrowed dirt. The oak and pine trees gave way to locust brushes and junipers by the time the bus stopped in front of a bunch of houses.

The students poured out to greet the bus driver, Kelly Maestast. He asked them if they were standing and handed me lunches. Dominguez shot baskets with some older kids.

Among them was 15-year-old Autumn Wilson, a shy sophomore whose father died after he started high school last year. Then the school was closed. You can no longer play on the volleyball team. Dominguez had linked him to a therapist on a previous visit.

In the fall, sadness over the loss makes it difficult to complete school assignments. But he takes pleasure in riding when his grandfather leads him to the family paddock. And she can’t wait to visit Maestas, who brought her candy for her birthday.

– Kelly, it’s very funny to talk to her. And if you’re sad, you can really talk to him, ”he said,“ and trust him.


Jeff Amy, an Atlanta Associated Press writer, contributed to the report.


Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newspapers to report on issues covered below. Follow Attanasio further Twitter.