By Fernando DONOSO
CARAHUE (AFP) -- In the south of Chile, a rural school is bringing the classroom to students, deploying vans to help teach pupils who might not otherwise have access to education during the coronavirus lockdown.
Students once rode in the vehicles to attended the Dream House School in the small town of Catripulli, located in Araucania, one of the poorest regions in Chile.
In this cold, rainy and rural part of the country, the vans now travel to a handful of students' homes, after hundreds of children were left adrift when classes were suspended in March.
Approximately 70 percent of Dream House School's 101 pupils are Mapuche, an indigenous people who live in Chile and Argentina.
Most don't own computers and even fewer have access to the internet, meaning the students can't take part in online classes.
The coronavirus has emptied Chile's schools, forcing millions of children to follow their lessons online, but there are regions where up to 76 percent of pupils don't have access to the internet, according to a study by the Digital Country Foundation.
And while children may have been supplied with school work on paper, they still don't have the sort of teaching support that is available online.
Preschool teacher Marcela Cea, 29, and van driver Alexis Araneda, 34, are among those who are traveling to pupils' homes to give lessons. It seems super good to me, because there are tasks that one cannot understood, not even the parents, so the teachers can come and give extra classes," Katalina Zuniga, an 11-year-old student who receives lessons in front of her home, told AFP.
Her mother, Modesta Caniunir, says the effort helps parents and now the "pupils are not going to get behind on their homework."
Araucania, around 500 kilometers (300 miles) south of the capital Santiago, is the third worst affected region in the country from coronavirus.
Chile has recorded more than 254,000 cases and over 4,700 deaths from COVID-19.
Inside the van, measures are taken to prevent spread of the virus, such as social distancing, wearing of masks, and protective clothing and shoes.
Pupils are given hand sanitizer and sit on chairs placed on carpets that are washed with chlorine.
The aim is not just to look after the children's educational needs, but also their emotional ones.
Before the class begins, the teacher speaks to the pupil to ascertain his or her state of mind.
Cesar Mendez, a 12-year-old, likes science class best. The school on wheels "helps us do our classwork which I don't know how to do and neither does my mom," he said, before heading off to lock up goats in the family pen, a fun distraction now that he no longer spends his days in class.
Meanwhile Zuniga, the 11-year-old, is learning about the Mapuche new year -- We Tripantu -- which is celebrated during the winter solstice from June 21-24.
She says she has no doubt what she's wishing for in the new year: an end to the pandemic.
Leveling the playing field
Most of the children's parents raise livestock and grow agricultural products. As of April, only four percent had internet access, and only six percent had access to a computer.
The majority of the children speak Mapudungun, their native indigenous language, the school principal Marcela Araneda told AFP.
Most schools in Chile are private, meaning public schools like this one rely on subsidies, and are trying to bridge the gap.
Private schools "have technology, computers, access to the internet, the ability to download information, watch YouTube videos, and have all the tools," said Osmín Flores, a lead teacher.
He said the aim of the mobile school is to "level" the playing field.
Just because they are rural children does not mean "they're going to have fewer opportunities or be less intelligent," said Flores.