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Four Difference-Making Practices: Supporting Rural Students Post-Pandemic

November 2, 2021

Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies
   Vencetia Flournoy, Guest Blogger and Recent Graduate
SRI International
   Laura Kassner, Senior Education Researcher, REL Appalachia

REL Appalachia's guest blogger, Vencetia Flournoy, is a recent graduate from a high school in our region. REL Appalachia's Laura Kassner had the opportunity to serve as a mentor to Vencetia during her senior year internship. This blog post is one product of her internship experience.

In 2020 and 2021, many high school students navigated the new territory of remote learning while reeling from the loss of promised milestones—homecoming, athletic and academic competitions, prom, graduation. Remote learning brought significant challenges, even more so for students without broadband to consistently connect to academic instruction and social-emotional supports. This blog explores the challenges of remote learning from the perspective of one high school senior in central Virginia with poor Internet connectivity as well as difference-making practices educators employed to support her. In this blog, Vencetia shares her voice and experience with the hope that other educators and school leaders can implement the highlighted practices to support rural student success beyond the pandemic.

Navigating my rural remote experience

I live in an idyllic rural community between two cities, and my high school experience had already been somewhat atypical, as I attended a magnet school 45 minutes from my home with students from 12 school districts. As COVID-19 swept the globe, my in-person high school classes turned into conference calls that relied heavily on broadband Internet, which is not available in my area.

Research indicates that reliable Internet access is a critical component of student success in remote learning, yet many rural areas do not have sufficient Internet infrastructure to support full virtual participation 1, 2—an inequity highlighted during the pandemic. A strong social-emotional connection with peers and adults supports student success, 3 but these connections became hard to sustain with limited Internet access during remote instruction. Some educators and researchers have expressed concern that these challenges could lead more students to drop out of school. 4

In addition to challenges with basic Internet and interpersonal connections, remote learning required us to adapt quickly to new technologies, with limited time to prepare. Many of my classmates floundered in managing deadlines, balancing the workload from multiple classes, and engaging in front of a screen for hours daily. Teachers got frustrated, classmates got annoyed, and we struggled to participate in conversations because the lagging, frozen screen faltered. Compared to others, I saw far more peers from rural communities with their cameras off, unresponsive in class. Working through connectivity issues caused mental exhaustion, and I noticed the toll on my mental health. However, I persisted with the support of my family and dedicated educators.

Difference-making practices

Educators at my school deployed several strategies that allowed me to thrive during my senior year, despite the challenges of poor connectivity and intense demands of remote learning. These strategies have relevance beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, as researchers and practitioners explore future applications for remote learning, such as flipped classrooms, homebound instruction, and expanding elective offerings.

Investigate options for providing access to technology

Our school's leaders began support efforts by offering every student without Internet service a hotspot device to provide connectivity through cell phone towers; however, incomplete network coverage made these devices an impractical solution for some of my rural peers. Next, school leaders allowed the remaining students without Wi-Fi access to use vacant classrooms, while masked and socially distanced, to connect to virtual instruction. I had the privilege of having access to a car for transportation, which made this solution possible. I acknowledge this privilege is not universal; however, a bus might serve as an alternative for students without cars.

Long after the pandemic, students may benefit from educator persistence, creativity, and utilization of several different strategies as it relates to access to virtual instruction. For example, educators can download content to devices for students to use offline or identify distance learning courses from other institutions to help students take electives that may not be offered locally. The timeless lesson is to remove barriers and find ways to get to “yes” for every student.

Remain flexible, patient, and adaptable

My teachers demonstrated flexibility and offered me choices in my learning whenever possible, which research affirms can positively impact academic achievement, motivation, engagement, agency, and students' expectations of success. 5 They offered assignment extensions as needed, patience with the learning curve of remote learning, and demonstrations on how to use new technology. My teachers' patience and flexibility also helped me feel like they recognized me as more than just a student, but as a whole person, processing complex emotions during a pandemic in addition to completing assignments. I hope educators can carry forward this patience and adaptability when supporting students, whether the students are in crisis or just navigating adolescence.

Foster sense of belonging

My teachers frequently checked in with us, individually and as a whole class, allowing for an honest dialogue about our mental health and demonstrating a sense of care and connection. Talking and laughing together made us all more eager to do our assignments and make our teachers proud. My Chinese language teacher created a welcoming, supportive online atmosphere by giving us time in class to study for an upcoming quiz and chatting with us about our college explorations, creating an emotional bond that encouraged us to continue logging on for class. This teacher demonstrated the skills that research supports: that feelings of belonging relate to better academic, psychological, and health outcomes, 6 and that teacher support strongly predicts student belonging. 7 This experience led me to more firmly believe in the power of relationships. Moving forward, we would all be well-served to remember the importance of human connection, safety, and belonging as elements of a supportive learning environment.

Engage beyond academics

Educators who found ways to incorporate aspects of normalcy into this strange time brought us comfort. My school found many ways to stimulate students' social connections while abiding by COVID-19 restrictions, such as hosting a prom in the parking lot, organizing an outdoor drive-in movie night, and holding a limited-capacity, masked senior trivia night. These safe activities not only fostered social-emotional bonds but also motivated us to continue to engage in remote learning. 8 Finding creative ways to engage students in extracurricular events and activities—particularly for those who may not otherwise have deep connections to school—is another worthwhile strategy to carry forward, as extracurricular participation is strongly correlated with better attendance, higher achievement, and higher levels of educational aspiration. 9

Reflecting on a milestone achieved

In an outdoor stadium, with everyone masked and socially distanced, spring commencement ceremonies occurred and the love and support of our school community—students, teachers, family members—was palpable. “Making it” to the finish line feels like so much greater of a victory than it might have in typical times. As I graduated, I reflected upon the support my community has given me, including my family who encouraged me to continue forward with my head up even in these tough times, and my school's administration and educators who have adapted and worked to provide me a wonderful senior year. More than ever before, educators demonstrated care for students during the pandemic and deserve gratitude and respect. Being able to experience graduation in-person really put into perspective not only the things that I missed this year, but also the countless skills that I gained. Moving forward beyond the pandemic, educators can continue to employ these difference-making strategies—ensuring access; modeling flexibility, patience, and adaptability; prioritizing emotional connectedness and belonging; and allowing for engagement beyond academics—to support students as they learn remotely or in-person.

For practical resources from across the REL program related to supporting students’ access and engagement post-pandemic, with a focus on virtual and distance-learning strategies, check out this supplemental REL Corner.

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Footnotes:

1 Perrin, A. (2019, May 31). Digital gap between rural and nonrural America persists. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/31/digital-gap-between-rural-and-nonrural-america-persists/

2 Federal Communications Commission. (2020). 2020 Broadband deployment report. https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/reports/broadband-progress-reports/2020-broadband-deployment-report

3 REL Northwest. (n.d.) Shifting the current school climate: Sense of belonging and social and emotional learning [Infographic]. Institute of Education Sciences. https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/regions/northwest/pdf/social-emotional-learning.pdf

4 Kassner, L., Jonas, D., & Klein, S. (2020, May 18). Dropout prevention in the time of COVID-19. Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia Blog. https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/regions/appalachia/blogs/blog29_ dropout-prevention-in-COVID-19.asp

5 Germeroth, C. (2020, July 2). Value of flex scheduling emerging during social distancing. REL Central Blog. https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/regions/central/blog/flex-scheduling-value.asp

6 Jose, P. E., Ryan, N., & Pryor, J. (2012). Does social connectedness promote a greater sense of well-being in adolescence over time? Journal of Research on Adolescence, 22(2), 235–251 http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ966066

7 Merritt, E. G., Wanless, S. B., Rimm-Kaufmann, S. E., Cameron, C., & Peugh, J. L. (2012). The contributions of teachers' emotional support to children's social behaviors and self-regulatory skills in first grade. School Psychology Review, 41(2), 141–159. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ977431

8 REL Mid-Atlantic, & New Jersey Department of Education. (n. d.) Supporting student engagement in remote and hybrid learning environment [Infographic]. Institute of Education Sciences. https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/ regions/midatlantic/app/Docs/Infographics/REL_MA_NJ_Remote_Learning_infographic_508.pdf

9 National Center for Education Statistics. (1995). Extracurricular participation and student engagement. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs95/web/95741.asp