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When Access is Limited Bus Drivers Become Heroes
As part of the work I do as a freelance journalist and independent filmmaker, I often get placed in precarious situations and witness things firsthand, which was no different this past week as I rode the broadband bus. I wanted to see the lengths some of our parents, teachers and schools have gone to keep kids educated during this pandemic. I am working on a short documentary for the Center for Law and Poverty, bringing to light stories of communities where broadband connectivity is an issue. The tiny, northwestern New Mexico town of Cuba allowed me to see what they do for their students, with some success, but always adapting to the situation.
On a snow flurry-filled Monday morning, I drove up to Cuba, N.M. My goal was to get to the Cuba School Transportation office before the buses went out on their Monday morning run around 8am. Buses? Yes, the kids are not back in person in Cuba, but the buses still run. They act now as a lifeline to many far-flung reaches of the Navajo Nation and various other small communities that the district serves.
Walking into the cold warehouse that morning, I was greeted by the bus drivers. Bus drivers seem always to be good, caring people. I couldn’t imagine waking at 4am, warming up the buses and getting out the door to drive nearly an hour before picking up your first little passenger at 6am during a regular school day.
That was the typical day for Kelly, an older Hispanic veteran who let me hang out as he did his route. A grueling seven-hour, 22-stop, 176-mile round trip from start to finish. Kelly grew up in the area and worked with his father as a young man filling propane tanks in these communities. So no one knows these back roads better, and he navigates them like a Captain, with the bus as his ship.
Over washboard roads so bad I thought the windows were about to break, through patches of clay mud that he had burned into his memory, we rode. “This one right here, I have been stuck in there before. It may look OK, but I know better.” That was the understatement of the day. I say that because, from Kelly, I learned so much about his kids’ state of well being that he sees weekly.
In many cases Kelly may be the sole source of contact with the school. He delivers on Monday the weekly assignments, lunches and other needed items. In Monday’s box were a few requested gloves and knit hats. The school district tries to accommodate requests like tables, chairs, WiFi, loaner items and provides bus drivers to deliver them directly to the families. They follow up on Thursday to pick up assignments and deliver milk and other breakfast foods for the next week.
One of the most significant issues that COVID-19 brought to light has been the disparity between adequate and equal access to learning. The biggest of these is internet accessibility. Now mind you, Kelly’s magical school bus is equipped with WiFi. And as much as the State of New Mexico Education Department would like you to believe this aid is adequate—to my dismay, I found out the bus WiFi is only as good as the bus’ proximity to a significant cell phone tower. There was at least one full hour out in the N.M. backcountry where I had no cell signal whatsoever. Kids live out there in these places.
Cuba has been super proactive. Dr. Karen Sanchez-Griego, the superintendent of the Cuba Independent School District, has had some tough choices to make this year and went as far as providing Verizon Jetpacks (mobile modems) for use by students to access distance learning. A few homes we visited said that these worked OK, for the most part. Data can be an issue; and in the case of that Monday, snow and overcast skies hindered the performance of various student devices.
Seeing Kelly interact with these kids was incredible. “I make it a point to talk to them; when I had the [regular home-to-school] bus route, we saw each other every day, I got to know them. I could tell if they had a hard time at home or at school. So now I hardly get to see these guys. I worry about them.” It’s a sentiment the kids enjoy; their faces lit up as we honked the horn, and they came running out and up the bus steps as Kelly retrieved the items for those specific kids. “You guys got homework to turn in?” Sometimes the grandparents or parents would come out to the bus. “Hey how you guys doing on wood?” Kelly would inquire. That question alone means a lot to so many. I have a family that relies on wood to heat a home. That sort of “check in” is the epitome of caring.
But this ride showed that, in our vast New Mexico landscape, profound changes need to occur to adequately connect those that need it—not just in Native communities either. This is the story of Truchas, Mosquero, Mora, Canjilon and others. I left my community of Acoma years ago and moved into town because of the internet. It was no longer a privilege; it became a necessity. In 2021 the New Mexico Education Department will be brought to task by the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit to prove that they have helped these places. Maybe it’s time state officials take a ride on the broadband bus in many of these communities and find out it’s not all they think it is. There is much more to be done and plenty more power players to convince. That is a whole different story. Stay tuned. [ ]