A Visit to 5 of Patagonia’s Most Remote Schoolhouses

A Visit to 5 of Patagonia’s Most Remote Schoolhouses

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place worldwide, we launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Andria Hautamaki shares a collection of images from rural Patagonia.

Known for its soaring, glacier-capped Andean peaks and its labyrinth of fjords, Magallanes — in southernmost Patagonia — is Chile’s largest but second least populated region. Daily existence here requires tenacity and resilience, and community life within the isolated villages is facilitated in part by an unlikely source: a network of rural schools.

Last year, more than 275,000 Chilean students attended one of the country’s rural schools. Half of these schools were led by a sole teacher who instructed multiple grade levels inside a single room. Many of the schools also include gymnasiums, libraries, cafeterias or computer rooms — resources that benefit the broader community.

After coordinating with local educational authorities and teachers, and with the blessing of the students’ parents and guardians, I spent over a month last year traveling to five such schools.

The areas I visited exemplify the diversity of lifestyle found in the remote corners of Chilean Patagonia. Some of the communities rely on ranching or peat extraction, some on fishing, some on tourism. Many of the schools themselves are off-the-grid, powered by a combination of diesel generators and wind or solar energy. When winter temperatures dip below freezing, gravity-fed water systems and water pipes can ice over for days or even weeks. Wood-burning stoves heat many of the classrooms.

Getting to these areas can be an arduous undertaking. Villa Puerto Edén, for example, a remote hamlet on Wellington Island, was a 27-hour trip from the mainland. Because of the staggered schedule of the ferry, I had to wait ten days to catch the next boat out.

Reaching Pampa Guanaco, a hamlet on the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, also required a ferry ride — in addition to a three-hour drive on a gravel road. At the end of my stay, when it came time to return to mainland Chile, the port had closed because of high winds. I was left stranded on a blustery shore, surrounded by white-capped waves. Several hours later, the wind let up just enough for the ferry to resume crossing the Strait of Magellan.

Classroom instruction in these rural communities is provided from preschool through eighth grade. After eighth grade, students must relocate during the school year to the closest city, which could be hours, or days away. There, they often live with either a parent or extended family, or even a host family, in order to attend high school.

Cynthia Almonacid Molinet, who is 36, teaches 11 students — representing six distinct grade levels — at a school in Cerro Guido.

The school sits on a livestock ranch in view of Torres del Paine National Park and is often surrounded by gauchos on horseback. Classroom instruction is sometimes interrupted by the pattering of hooves from passing flocks of woolly sheep.

One of the many advantages of the rural educational environment “is being able to study the parts of a plant and then being able to go out into the environment to find concrete examples in nature,” Ms. Almonacid said.

But working in small, isolated communities is also uniquely demanding. “Teachers who are in rural schools must enjoy living in extreme areas,” Ms. Almonacid said, adding that the management of multigrade classrooms — with students at a variety of levels and abilities — is a constant struggle.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended educational routines all around the globe, and many schools in Chile have pivoted to remote learning. But rural Chilean schools face particularly difficult challenges now, not the least of which is the lack of consistent internet and telecommunication networks.

“Not all students have access to the internet, a computer or a telephone,” Ms. Almonacid said. “And parents, due to limited schooling, find it difficult to help their children with their homework.”

Enrollment in schools here fluctuates from year to year — as students graduate, or as families come or go. But rural schools continue to serve aspiring marine biologists, artisan boat builders, bilingual tour guides and veterinarians. And despite the difficulties introduced by the coronavirus pandemic, these students’ professional dreams will continue to be kindled by daily contact with the natural world, coupled with the freedom to embrace curiosity and creative problem-solving.