On-the-ground reporting from New Mexico exposes the obstacles currently facing rural schools and students.

In conversations with the superintendent and the social worker of the Cuba, New Mexico, school district — on the sparsely populated fringe of the Navajo Nation — AP Report for America journalist Cedar Attanasio saw a storytelling opportunity in the bus system that is used to solve some of students’ biggest and smallest distance-learning challenges. 

Attanasio, based in Santa Fe, was able to tell the story of the pandemic's effects on some of the country’s most isolated, vulnerable students by getting a seat on one of the school buses used to transport meals, school assignments and counselors to remote students, a number of whom do not have electricity, let alone internet.

The superintendent was one of many Attanasio reached out to statewide as he began working on the education beat in New Mexico. After a preliminary conversation about how the rural district with a mix of Native American and Hispanic students was dealing with the pandemic, the superintendent connected him with the social worker, who allowed him to sit in on a case management meeting that offered a glimpse of the district’s use of the bus system. Attanasio then researched the bus routes with an eye to the landscapes that could provide especially striking visuals. Once aboard the bus, he built a rapport with the bus driver who in turn encouraged students and their families to speak with him for interviews.

But the logistics of reporting, as well as shooting photos and video, were complicated by the coronavirus. On the second day that Attanasio planned to ride along on the bus, the driver learned he would need to quarantine because he had been exposed to the virus by a household on his route. With no guide in a sparsely populated area of unmarked dirt roads and hardly any cellphone service, Attanasio had to chase buses along their routes to get the footage he needed for the video piece. With no map and no cell signal, he relied on directions from a passerby to find the neighborhood of one student and her family who’d agreed to a follow-up interview. When he accompanied them to a corral, he asked to ride in the family’s truck to avoid running out of gas himself — an arrangement that also gave him access to shoot video of the girl and her cousins bouncing in the back of the truck.

Attanasio’s account of the struggles of the district and its students was used by some 200 customers online. It appeared on newspaper front pages as far away as Massachusetts and had 25,000 pageviews on AP News. One reader donated $1,000 for the school board to buy “goodies for the kids.”

For delivering an insightful multiformat package that reveals the pandemic’s impact on education in a disadvantaged community, Attanasio earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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