Cutoff: School closures leave rural students isolated

Cuba, New Mexico (AP)-When a school bus arrives at Cylis Castillo’s house on the far end of Mesa at noon, the long days of boredom and isolation of senior high school students collapse.

The driver puts food in a white plastic bag, collects Castillo’s school homework, and has a welcome conversation before going to another house.

Due to the coronavirus closing classrooms and switching to distance learning, Castillo and other students in this school district were deeply isolated in the sparsely populated area of ​​Navajo Nation, New Mexico-separated from direct human contact. Often not connected to the grid.

Like many of his neighbors, Castillo doesn’t have electricity, let alone the internet.

This is yet another way the pandemic has revealed the gap between US voters.

“There’s not much to do here. You clean up, pick up trash, make things. It’s like I built the hut right there,” said 18-year-old Castillo on a sloping roof. He pointed to the plywood hut and said.

“Hopefully we’ll be back in school by the next semester,” he said. “I don’t like online. I want to study at school. It’s not just me. I think it’s a lot easier and much better than being here without doing anything.”

Centered around a village of 800 people, the Cuban Independent School District continues to operate buses as a way to provide schools to distant students living on vast checkboards of tribal, federal and county lands.

The bus carries school homework, art supplies, meals, counselors on the route and checks in to students suffering from online bullying, abuse, suicide thoughts and other problems.

The bus is the lifeline of the Cuban school district’s family, nearly half of which are Hispanic, half are Native American, and include many Navajo-speaking English learners.

Many do not have running water. Castillo and other non-electric people charge school-issued laptops with car batteries or at relatives’ homes. One student sent a laptop to the bus to charge at school. Internet services are not available or are exorbitantly expensive so far.

For students who do not have the internet at home, the bus brings a USB drive with assignments and video lessons from the teacher. Some students, like Castillo, eventually requested a paper packet because it was difficult to charge their laptop.

With COVID-19 cases soaring to the highest level ever in New Mexico, it is unclear when the district will begin offering face-to-face classes again.

The district has a record of adaptation to assignments, with a high school graduation rate of 83%, well above the state average. Social workers, nurses and teachers have long adopted a “community school” approach that supports students 24 hours a day, not just during school days, based on the theory that improving family life will improve academic performance. I’ve been doing it.

A Chromebook was published to all students in 2019, long before the coronavirus outbreak. This facilitated the transition to distance learning in March, when the school building was closed.

Other rural areas across the country have similarly designed ways to connect with liberated students during a pandemic.

Early in the pandemic, the Golden Planes Unified School District, about 30 miles (48 km) west of Fresno in San Joaquin, California, noticed that students were working rather than studying.

“We’ll have our kids call us from the fields. They chose peaches,” said Assistant Superintendent Andre Pecina, who said that only 40% of high school students participated in distance learning. I did. “When COVID occurred, my parents said,’Let’s go to work.’ “

To get the students back, the school district contacted parents over the phone to set up a teachers’ meeting at the beginning of the school year and ordered hundreds of internet hotspots. We also provide school materials and electronics to our students.

In New Mexico, about 25 cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and other staff spend more than an hour every day before the bus leaves Cuba High School for milk, agricultural products, side dishes, toilet paper, and more. Loaded with family essentials.

One day in late October, district counselor Victoria Dominguez, who was checking two suicidal students, boarded the ship. She brought a pair of skateboard shoes. In the spring, a screening system for messages sent by students flagged them once or twice a week for showing signs of possible emotional problems. Currently she sees dozens of people in a week.

“I’m worried during the winter. It’s going to be dark. It’s getting cold and I can’t go out,” Dominguez said.

Due to the surge in COVID-19 infection rates, schools switched to delivering buses every other day instead of every day.

“They will still get the same amount of food, but they can’t get the same amount of human contact,” she said.

The road from high school has changed from asphalt to gravel to deeply rutted soil. The oak and pine trees gave way to the sage brush and the mocking Juniper before the bus stopped in front of the flock of houses.

Students gathered to greet the bus driver, Kelly Maestas. He asked them how they were doing and handed out lunch. Dominguez went to shoot the basket with his older children.

Among them was Autumn Wilson, a 15-year-old shy second-year student whose father died after graduating from high school last year. After that, the school was closed. Now she can no longer play on the volleyball team. Dominguez associated her with the therapist on a previous visit.

Autumn said the sadness of loss made it difficult for her to finish her studies. But when her grandfather takes her to a family enclosure, she finds the joy of riding a horse. And she looks forward to a visit from Maestus who brought her candy on her birthday.

“Kelly, it’s really funny to talk to him, and if you feel sad, you can really talk to him,” she said, “and you can trust him. I can do it.”


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


Attanasio is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on unreported issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

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Cutoff: School closures leave rural students isolated

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