By Erik Kantar and Andrea Blanco Morales
It’s 8 a.m. when cars begin pulling into the Socorro High School parking lot in Socorro, Texas. There are no good-bye kisses from parents sending their children off to the classroom. Instead, the students settle into the passenger seat and take out their laptops to access the school’s Wi-Fi. Students aren’t allowed to leave their car, a rule strictly enforced by school police.
This is the new normal for many Socorro students whose classes have moved online due to school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic, but who lack home access to reliable internet. An 18-minute drive from El Paso and a 14-minute bike ride to the U.S-Mexico border, the Socorro school district oversees three more Wi-Fi equipped school parking lots; each lot also has technical support assistants to help students troubleshoot connectivity issues every weekday from 8 a.m. to noon.
Yet, despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators, the pandemic has laid bare the district’s Achilles heel—and that of countless other poor, rural districts across the nation: The most vulnerable families don’t have access to technology and Wi-Fi connections, which are essential for online learning during a pandemic. Hector Reyna, the chief technology officer for the Socorro Independent School District estimates that 10 percent of Socorro families lack Wi-Fi. But an analysis of Wi-Fi access among county’s nationwide by Frank Donnelly, the geospatial data librarian at Baruch College, suggests that 17 to 24 percent of Socorro county’s minors lack internet access—a percentage that is in line with other rural areas in the South.
Students face other distinct challenges along the border. A large number of students in the district are binational and about 20 percent are residents of so-called colonias; both groups are likely to have either students or parents who struggle with English. Colonias are unincorporated, communities located along the Mexico–United States border that typically lack basic services, such as potable water, electricity, paved roads and sewer systems. Three colonias are situated within the Socorro school district.
To meet the needs of the disadvantaged students, the Socorro district says it has begun a mass laptop distribution program, personally calling over 2,000 families and delivering laptops and hotspots to them. As of April, the district had delivered 800 Wi-Fi hotspots, according to Reyna, and purchased 1,500 more.
In addition, approximately 90 percent of students in Socorro’s high schools take vocational classes in everything from air-conditioning and heating repair to cosmetology. These classes, which depend on hands-on learning, are likely to take an especially hard hit if the shutdown continues into the fall and could jeopardize students’ access to trades after graduation.
“I miss being in the shop with my friends,” said Javier Hernandez, a Socorro high school senior whose favorite class was auto mechanics.
The district is trying to use technology not just to close the gap between classroom learning and experiential work, but also as a way to “stay connected” with students and families, and to “ease tensions” during the lockdown. During Family Friday zoom sessions, created by the district superintendent Jose Espinoza, teachers, parents and kids engage in activities like knitting, writing letters to their future selves, gardening and even TikTok challenges. The objective of these activities, the district says, is to allow both students and parents to explore creative learning experiences.
“A lot of times, all we were hearing was how hard it was to learn from home or how it wasn’t enjoyable enough,” said Carmen Crosse, the district’s assistant superintendent, who says Family Fridays have created a bridge between parents and educators.
Parents “assumed that we expected them to become master teachers,” added Crosse. “Family Fridays allow parents the chance to say help me, because sometimes asking the question is intimidating.”
However, social distancing from their peers and teachers is still taking a toll on students’ mental health.
“It’s extremely hard,” said Socorro mother Zinnia Bustillos of her daughter’s difficulties in keeping up with her Pebble Hills High online classes, noting that her daughter doesn’t get as much in-person attention from her teachers as she feels she needs. “She’s even been depressed and has a lot of anxiety and now they’re doing finals next week through zoom, it’s hard.”
Indeed, Texas has a severe shortage of both mental-health professionals and counselors in schools. Texas has about one counselor per every 450 students; that’s about double the 250-to-one counselor-to-student ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association.
To provide additional support, the Socorro district has partnered with Texas Tech University to host tele-mental health services for students, including those at risk of suicide. When counselors fear for students’ safety, they also work with the district police to check on them.
“One thing that we’ve seen is that our police department is working with our counselors to provide that support for some of our students that are having a difficult time at home,” said Marivel Macias, assistant superintendent of administrative services for the Socorro district. “Our police services do home visits to ensure our children are okay. Then we provide them additional support to ensure that they get the mental health help that they need.”
However, with undocumented immigrants in El Paso area estimated to number 55,000, some households may not welcome interactions with the police out of fear.
In poor districts like Socorro, the school closings and the economic challenges of the pandemic also have posed nutritional challenges for students who depended on schools for two meals a day even before the shutdown. According to the National School Lunch Program, about 22 million low-income children rely on free or reduced-cost food served at their public schools nationwide.
At the end of April, the Socorro district had distributed nearly 500,000 meals at designated school campuses.
But while the administration makes an effort to include everyone, some students still have difficulty accessing school meals. On some campuses, for instance, food is only being offered on a drive-thru basis, in order to ensure safety. But families without a car may be unable to access the food—or the Wi-Fi available in parking lots.
That may explain why Socorro campuses serve an average of 850 meals a day, while the schools that serve the poorest parts of the district, like the Desert Wind site, only serve about 150 to 200 meals a day. “We know it is a remote site,” said Macia. “I will put this on the table: There are students that we haven’t reached and we are consistently trying to identify why we haven’t reached them.’’
Meanwhile, the district keeps registering new students for the next school year. The students are then assigned to teachers who identify their technology needs and the best way to meet those needs.
As the pandemic unfolds, it is evident in Socorro, as nationwide, that school closings pose the greatest threat to students who are already the most disadvantaged.