COVID-19

Virtual Learning Out of Reach for Migrant Families in Mexico

Migrant workers in Mexico’s Rarámuri Minita shelter have overcome many obstacles to provide their children with education. The coronavirus crisis may prove the biggest challenge yet.

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CUAUHTÉMOC, MEXICO — In Mexico, as in much of the world, school has moved online and into homes. But for the 11 families and 15 children who live in the Rarámuri Minita shelter, school is anything but accessible.

For the last 35 years, this shelter has supported mostly indigenous families who come to work in the apple orchards. Every year, close to 5,500 workers migrate to the city of Cuauhtémoc, in the state of Chihuahua, for the apple harvest. Chihuahua, in northern Mexico, is the country’s dominant apple producer. The state produced 29 million boxes in 2019.

Across Mexico every year, some 350,000 children between the ages of 6 and 14 migrate with their parents, who travel in search of work, like the apple harvest here. Of those, only one in 10 is enrolled in school. Most won’t advance beyond second grade.

Now, the coronavirus threatens their access to education even further. The state of Chihuahua has confirmed 6,386 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The school next to the Rarámuri Minita shelter has long offered off-cycle school semesters to coincide with the apple harvest, in hopes of providing children here with consistent education. Here, the academic year begins in March and ends in November. School had just started when the Ministry of Public Education suspended classes and moved learning online to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The ministry’s distance learning program, Learn at Home, requires internet access and has been largely inaccessible for children of the families living, now permanently, here.

To ease the burden, local teachers used to deliver materials to the shelter every two weeks, but now, as the pandemic reaches what some believe will be the peak, the visits have been suspended.

Photos from inside the shelter reveal that despite the challenges, a culture of learning persists.

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Children in the shelter complete puzzles that Claudia Pérez, left, made from recycled cardboard.

Pérez says the government’s coronavirus restrictions have created significant challenges here, since the families lack internet, computers and smartphones, required for distance learning.

“The families in the shelter are often lacking basic necessities and sometimes don’t even have anything to eat, much less a smartphone,” she says.

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Esmeralda Rodríguez, left, and her sister, Jimena Rodríguez, live in a room at the shelter with their grandfather, Félix Chávez, who’s been their guardian for the past three years.

Esmeralda is in fifth grade. She’s working on math homework her teacher brought several weeks ago, before the visits were suspended. Jimena doesn’t know how to read or write. She says she won’t learn this year because she doesn’t have teachers.

Esmeralda says their grandfather explained that they couldn’t go back to school because there was a very contagious disease.

“Now we’re here at home all day,” she says. “We don’t go out.”

Their grandfather is concerned about their future if the virus continues to threaten their education.

“It is important to go to school to learn to read and write, so that they can defend themselves. If they do not know how to do this, how are they going to defend themselves?” Chávez asks.

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Children in the shelter, out of school and unable to participate in distance learning, spend more time helping their parents with chores. They wash clothes and dishes daily.

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Esmeralda and Jimena spend all day together. During the day, they do homework and chores. Their room is one of the few with a TV, but it doesn’t have any buttons to change channels. When cartoons are on, the sisters sit on the ground in front of the set. Without much schoolwork, they spin and play hide-and-seek to pass the time.

“We play almost all day, and sometimes we get bored. I want to go back to school,” Esmeralda says.

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Margarita Acosta, the mother of three children living here, worries about the children falling behind in school.

“All of this time is going by and they’re not learning,” Acosta says.

Esmeralda says she really misses school, especially reading, drawing and seeing her teachers.

“What I miss most is seeing my friends and playing with them,” she says. “But I know I can’t go to school now because of coronavirus.”