Schools South Of The Border: Some Sonoran Students, Families Struggle For Education Amid The Pandemic

By Kendal Blust
Published: Thursday, September 24, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, September 24, 2020 - 7:48am

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Mother and son work on homework
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Eivon Peralta helps her 4-year-old son Jesús with his homework at a neighborhood youth center in September 2020 after schools closed in Sonora amid the coronavirus pandemic.

On an afternoon in late September, Eivon Peralta sat at the end of a long folding table, helping her 4-year-old son Jesus with a worksheet assigned by his preschool teacher.

“Look, it’s a lion,” she congratulated her youngest son, as he finished connecting the dots to reveal a smiling face surrounded by a mane of bright orange triangles.

The mother and son were in a youth center computer lab, where about a dozen kids were seated at personal computers lined up against the wall.

“I come here every day. Every day for my kids,” said Peralta.

A single mother of five children — ages 4, 6, 9, 11 and 16 — Peralta is able to bring her kids to the computer lab to do their schoolwork everyday because she’s out of a job right now because of the pandemic. But she’s looking for work.

Eivon Peralta and her children
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Eivon Peralta and her children at the youth center in their neighborhood.

Along with about 30 million students in Mexico, Peralta’s kids go to school now by switching on the TV to watch classes being broadcast throughout the country.

Upbeat teachers speak directly to the camera from brightly lit TV studios as they present lessons on math, civics, music and other subjects with perky assistants, some of whom act out the role of students, since the real ones are on the other side of the screen.

In Mexico, all elementary and middle school classes started being broadcast on TV and radio on Aug. 24. The idea was to make distance learning more accessible to families who don’t have internet access.

Federal data show that while fewer than 60% of households in Mexico have an internet connection, and only about 44% have a computer, nearly 93% of homes have a TV.

But that hasn’t meant easy access to education for everyone.

“Imagine having five kids, like me,” Peralta said. “I have to be on top of high school, middle school, elementary school, preschool. Everything. All in the same week.”

She said she spends a little time with each one, doing homework teachers send through email, or via the messaging platform WhatsApp for families who have a smartphone. Peralta doesn’t.

“All the copies are hard for me,” she said. “Downloading all of it, printing it. Because many times there’s money, but sometimes there’s not.”

When she can’t afford printing, she said, she and her oldest son copy the worksheet out by hand for the younger kids.

Dropping Out

“Yes, the pandemic hit really hard, but not just in terms of the economy or health, but in terms of education. Academic motivation went down,” said Omar Balderrama, who runs the youth center in Peralta’s neighborhood. “And the tragedy is that the streets are going to swallow those kids up.”

Youth center
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Amor y Convicción is a youth center in Hermosillo where many neighborhood children and families are going for assistance with distance learning.

Many of the children he works with aren’t going back to school this year, he said. Some started working during pandemic. Others don’t have adults at home making sure school work gets done. And many don’t have access to the technology they need.

“There are neighborhoods in Hermosillo where there are no television sets. Where there are no computers. Where there is no internet,” he said.

Even so, Sonora overall is better off than many parts of Mexico. While only 50% of Sonoran households have a computer, more than 80% have some kind of internet connection. Often on a smartphone. And cities like Hermosillo tend to have much higher connectivity than rural and Indigenous communities, which are facing even greater challenges.

Still, Balderrama said, there are dozens of kids in this neighborhood alone who wouldn’t be able to access their classes without the youth center.

“They just don’t have the conditions to do it in their homes,” he said.

Of course, coming to the computer lab to do their homework exposes students to some of the same risks authorities hope to avoid by keeping classrooms closed. Kids have to wash their hands when they arrive, but they aren’t required to wear a face mask or maintain social distancing. Balderrama said it’s just too hard to enforce those rules.

Kids playing soccer
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
A group of kids plays soccer at the youth center where Peralta brings her kids to do their homework in the afternoons.

But at least at the youth center, he said, they have adult supervision, access to a computer and even programs like gardening and soccer.

Many kids in Sonora don’t have any of that right now.

“We have communities that, well, access is difficult,” said Patricia Calles, Sonora’s undersecretary of general education.

The state is working hard to provide an education for Sonora’s nearly 600,000 elementary and middle school students, who’ve been out of the classroom since March 17, she said.

In addition to receiving classes on TV, students also get free textbooks and individual contact with their teachers through email or phone messages. Some teachers have gone to students homes, Calles said. And she thinks those measures have prevented most kids from dropping out of school.

“In studies that we have so far, it’s not significant,” she said of the number of children who’ve left the school system.

But she admitted that state leaders don’t have comprehensive data on dropouts yet, and plans for an eventual return to in-person classes include remediation for students who have inevitably fallen behind during the pandemic.

There is currently no timeline for a return to classrooms in Sonora.

‘Whatever May Come’

Back at the youth center, a computer lab attendant helped Peralta download homework her kids’ teachers sent via email. This school year is the first time Peralta has ever used email.

Yizel Rivera helps Eivon Peralta
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Computer lab attendant Yizel Rivera helps Eivon Peralta access her children's homework assignments on Sept. 18, 2020.

“It’s all new,” he said. “I’m learning as we go, because I didn’t know. Honestly I didn’t know … anything.”

It’s been a hard transition to distance learning. And while Peralta said she hopes the television classes and other strategies continue amid the pandemic, she also knows in-person classes are better for her kids.

“Little. They’re learning very little,” she said. “But they’re trying. At least my kids. Because they have to be there, they have to be ready for whatever may come.”

Peralta said she’s lucky that her kids enjoy school, for the most part. She’s tried to instill in them the importance of a good education.

“I always tell them, ‘Study! Study!’ It’s the only inheritance they’ll have, really,” she said. “So they’re doing O.K. But like I said, they want to go back to school. It’s a battle. It’s difficult. But, oh well. We’ve accepted it.”

For now, families like hers will keep scraping together the best education they can for their children at home.

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The youth center computer lab in Sonora includes a printer and about a dozen computers where students were learning remotely in fall 2020.
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Eivon Peralta helps her 4-year-old son Jesús with his homework at a neighborhood youth center in September 2020.
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Eivon Peralta checks her email to get her children's homework assignments on a computer at a neighborhood youth center in September 2020.
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Eivon Peralta and her children outside the youth center computer lab where they go to do schoolwork each day.
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A teacher goes over the number line in a first grade math class broadcast on Sept. 18, 2020, as part of Mexico's distance education program.
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