Written by Olivia Young
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the world stopped. The need for education, however, did not—challenging rural educators to respond. According to the 2010 U.S. census, nearly 60 million people live in a rural area. A rural area is defined as “any population, housing, or territory NOT in an urban area,” where an urban area is one that has a population of 50,000, or a cluster of between 2,500 to 50,000 people. Included in these expansive rural areas are large amounts of students going to historically underfunded schools. This funding has led to delays to improving infrastructure and expanding resources available to their students. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these problems were exacerbated; namely, rural public schools are facing unique challenges in providing transportation, internet connectivity, and meals to their students.
In March 2020, Virginia—along with the rest of the United States—shut down. This meant that all public schools transitioned from in-person instruction to online learning. But for rural schools, this wasn’t as simple as sending their students home to do their work. The students needed access to technology as well as an internet source to connect to their coursework. Franklin County Public Schools (FCPS) had to rely on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, which was created by the U.S. federal government to provide “fast and direct economic assistance for American workers, families, small businesses, and industries,” to purchase more Chromebooks for the remaining students. Yet, for students that live in areas without access to the internet, this was not an all-encompassing solution. Luckily, FCPS superintendent Dr. Bernice Cobbs and her associates were able to use more of the CARES Act funding to provide hotspots for students and families who requested hotspots.
Hotspots were still not a viable solution for all rural schools. In Somerset, Texas, 10% of students did not have access to the internet. When hotspots were issued, students were still not able to connect “because it was off the grid.” The district supplemented the students with paper packets so that they could access the material, but they did not have access to videos or online tutorials that might help them learn difficult concepts. In interviews with Ms. Anna Graham and Dr. Jeremy Raley, the superintendents of Madison and Goochland County Public Schools respectively, this experience was mirrored. Some students were simply too far off the grid or did not even have reliable cell phone reception for a hotspot to connect. In Goochland County, students were expected to make it to the school once a week to download the material needed onto their computer so they could finish their assignments without needing an internet connection. Madison County continued to supplement these students with paper copies of assignments as well as downloads of the material when possible. Louisa County Public Schools had an entirely different solution, building 32 wireless-wheeled solar powered trailers that provide internet access to anyone within 200 feet. There is no one perfect solution, but each community was able to adapt to the constraints of internet access to provide the needed materials to their students.
With schools turning to online learning, students have started to fall behind. It is easy to not log onto class or stay muted with the camera off rather than engage with the material. This decrease in engagement has impacted student achievement, particularly in math. Rural students have always been at a disadvantage in math and science courses when compared to urban students. In fact, 37.6% of the variation in student achievement in math was explained just by location. During the pandemic, a Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) study found that students in grades 3-8 had comparable learning achievement in reading but fell ten percentile points in math. Dr. Cobbs saw similar results: “We looked at where our students were in the first semester in 2019, and where they were in the 2021 semester. We did find that our failure rate was higher. For high school, for example, in 2019 the failure rate may have been about 5% … [In] 2021, at the end of the semester, the failure rate may [be] 20%.” While the failure rates are estimates, the differences in achievement are nonetheless staggering.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these struggles for success, further challenging rural schools to expand learning opportunities. Dr. Cobbs and her colleagues were able to open the school buildings on Saturday mornings so that families would have available internet and access to tutoring. While this was not a complete substitute for in-person learning, it expanded learning opportunities for students struggling with math and/or reading courses. Ms. Graham also described a decrease in student achievement—especially in the students that were completely off-the-grid. Select teachers, along with the school resource officer, were tasked with conducting home visits to these students who were failing or had low achievement to try to recreate the personal connection in distance learning.
Online schooling not only posed a challenge for learning, but also for continuing to feed students. In a study on school’s impact on food insecurity, Dr. Eliza Kinsey found “School nutrition programs play a vital role in meeting the nutritional needs of children and responding to the rapidly growing food insecurity crisis.” In 2019 alone, 15 million breakfasts and 30 million lunches were provided by the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program for little to no cost. In an effort to still provide these meals, the USDA has created waivers that give states more freedom on when and where the meals can be offered.
The superintendents of Madison, Franklin, Louisa, Goochland, and Poquoson County Public Schools all described similar models of providing food to those 18 and under. There were food pick ups either at the school or in other accessible areas in the community where families could pick up breakfast, lunch, and in some cases dinner, for the entire week. These systems were in place virtually from the start of school closings. Each county described the cafeteria staff immediately getting to work after schools closed in order to continue to provide food for those in need. “These are really often the unsung heroes of this whole operation,” Dr. Raley stated. These workers have been putting in extra work to make sure the entire community is fed. Ms. Graham said, “We give out 7 breakfasts and 7 lunches for everyone that comes, so around 500 meals each week.” Louisa County Public Schools superintendent Mr. Doug Straley stated that Louisa County “has provided over 680,000 total meals to members of the community in need since the beginning of the pandemic.” The cafeteria staff works every day during the school day to provide meals for the students that are able to attend and continue to work to prepare and provide meals to distribute to the community.
As more vaccines become available and the cases of COVID-19 decrease, more schools are opting to have hybrid or fully in-person classes. This produces a challenge for rural public schools to provide safe transportation. School buses are a key source of transportation for public schools, but two to three students typically sit together on a seat. In order to cooperate with COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, schools are required to have only one student per row, unless they are from the same household, and skip rows between students. In an effort to accommodate these regulations, Dr. Cobbs was able to use more CARES Act funding to purchase additional buses to transport the same number of students they were transporting before the pandemic. However, this funding was still not enough. “We found that even with the additional buses we purchased, it wasn’t enough, so we encouraged parents to bring their students to school,” Dr. Cobbs said. “We were very honest that on some buses we will be able to social distance and on others we will not, but we cracked windows and every student is required to wear a mask.” They implemented as many social distancing measures as they could, but they had to work within the constraints of funding.
The limits of funding were also felt by Mr. Straley when trying to accommodate transportation. If they were to buy more buses, they would also have to find and pay more bus drivers. “Each bus is around $100,000, so that would have run through our CARES Act funding really fast,” he said—highlighting the key role that funding plays in providing these resources. To work within their available resources, Goochland County Public Schools had to stagger the start times of their schools so that their buses were not overcrowded. Dr. Raley and Mr. Arty Tillett, the superintendent from Poquoson County Public Schools, both mentioned not wanting to spend the CARES Act funding on something they would have to continue to funnel money into once the federal aid stops. Mr. Tillett described the flaws in the federal funding models: “Even in the CARES funding, there are discrepancies … a school like Poquoson with smaller numbers of students received less money. We received around $250,000 and surrounding communities received around $70-80 million dollars. It [the federal funding system] puts a lot of pressure on the local city to make up the difference in funding.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all school systems to provide quality education while keeping students safe. The challenges facing rural public schools are not all unique to these areas but have been amplified by pre-existing disparities in rural areas. These challenges have not at all dampened the spirits of rural educators, however. Each worker—whether that is a teacher, cafeteria worker, nurse, or janitor—has banded together to help provide safe and quality education. Moving forward, rural educators will continue to work in the constraints of safety and funding to provide as much in-person instruction as possible to return stable foundations to their students. And for the students that flourished in online learning, there are now opportunities to better their education as well. As the 2020-2021 school year comes to a close, rural educators are working to create Plan A and Plan B to prepare for another year of education during a pandemic.
Edited by Tyler Schutt