March 2020 began as usual in many rural schools and communities in the U.S., with local farmers focused on spring rains, mud, and early greenhouse crops and rural educators looking ahead to the final quarter of the school year. Then the coronavirus pandemic moved in and the world as we had known it turned upside down. As news spread, and the implications and devasting effects of the virus became clear, schools and businesses in rural America and across the nation began to close and emergency planning kicked into high gear.
Connectivity Challenges in Rural Communities
In the early weeks of the pandemic, State Department of Education leaders across the country held virtual meetings and conducted surveys to help identify learners without access to high-speed internet and/or devices in an effort to identify the unserved and underserved members of the school community. Not surprisingly, these surveys uncovered a wide range of connectivity and access needs in rural areas of states. The pandemic brought attention to these longstanding disparities that had already been contributing to student and family educational inequities.
Across the nation, there are gaps in access to broadband in rural locations and on tribal lands. According to the Federal Communication Commission, while 98 percent of the population in urban areas had access to broadband service in 2019, only 73 percent of the rural population and only 67 percent of the population on tribal lands had access to broadband at speeds needed to stream most videos and other educational content. While access in rural and tribal communities is slowly improving, schools across the nation continue to report that internet connectivity and lack of access to computers persist and disadvantage their rural students.
According to an Education Week article, less than half of educational leaders and teachers surveyed from rural and high-poverty districts were able to provide online learning opportunities for all students during the spring semester, compared to 73 percent from districts with the lowest percentages of low-income students and 62 percent of leaders from suburban districts. The article states, “Rural schools in particular face a triple challenge of poor connectivity, limited staff and technical expertise, and lack of political clout, leaving them to stitch together patchwork solutions when the coronavirus pandemic hit.”
During the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, specific reports of access issues emerged. In New Hampshire, hotspot devices can provide internet access to families who get a cell signal, but for some, signals are blocked by the White Mountains. In rural Wisconsin, educators shared that even though they had a 1:1 technology program where each student is given a computer, there are locations in their district where internet access was not an option. Similarly, educators in rural Missouri reported that connection speeds remain a hurdle; even though 70% of students have access to the internet, only 50% had devices. Finally, educators in the Navajo Nation reported that they continue to struggle with access to the internet, sharing that only 40% of homes there were online and the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority’s network only covers two-thirds of the reservation.
Pandemic Response in Rural Communities
At the start of the pandemic, rural communities rallied to meet the most immediate needs of students and families, such as food insecurity. Some rural schools adopted the Summer Food Service Program model, using school district employees to distribute food along bus routes, so that rurally isolated students in need would be ensured daily breakfasts and lunches. For those the busses did not serve adequately, bagged lunches were made available for pick-up at rural schools in town centers with social distancing provisions in place. (See our COVID-19 FAQ on providing meals to students.) In addition, some small farms opened their greenhouses and farm stands early for local community members to purchase vegetables and seedlings and pay by using a serve-yourself trust system to minimize COVID-19 exposure.
In response to technology access and connectivity issues, rural educators and leaders developed creative solutions. In the Northeast & Islands region, Maine educators created videos of hands-on activities that aired on public television, and a Vermont school district distributed Chromebooks to every student. Rural regions of Wisconsin expanded the signal strength of their wireless routers so students, families, and community members could access the internet from school and library parking lots. Arkansas provides daily education programming through public television. And in Washington State, educators distributed educational materials and packets on bus routes along with daily meals. (See our COVID-19 FAQ on technology access.)
During the spring remote learning period, rural educators had concerns about meeting the needs of their most vulnerable students, including students who are English learners and students with disabilities. Even though many teachers themselves were geographically remote and isolated, they attended virtual staff meetings and learning team meetings to collaboratively find ways to serve these students. (See our COVID-19 FAQs on English language students and students with disabilities.)
One advantage of rural schools is that their size offers educators the opportunity to maintain relationships with students and families. For example, in my small, rural hometown of Bowdoinham, Maine, the elementary school staff conducted a “teacher parade” that lasted two and half hours to let students know how much they were missed. Vehicles, with horns honking, were adorned with signs and streamers as they drove down every road—dirt or paved—where the school’s elementary students lived. The parade did wonders for the students’ and teachers’ morale. Other rural educators who were unable to connect with parents and families online have stayed connected through scheduled telephone calls. These educators told me that they now have stronger connections to several students and families than they had when in-person learning was happening.
The immediate and heartfelt response of rural educators and community members to the coronavirus crisis has been phenomenal. Allen Pratt, Executive Director of the National Rural Education Association, said, “I am inspired by the reaction of rural educators and rural communities. The change from face-to-face instruction to 100% remote was handled with professionalism and courage. [Their] above-and-beyond approach in their continued relationships with their students, do-anything attitude to provide meals and services for their students and families, and positive attitude and unselfish willingness to move their rural communities forward has been amazing.”
Looking Ahead to the Fall
As spring turned to summer, schools and their surrounding ball fields and playgrounds remain empty. Rural children and teenagers spend less time in summer recreation leagues and more time with families—some fishing and camping, others supporting work on local farms and other tasks. Meanwhile, rural educators and leaders are spending time crafting contingency plans for the fall, moving from emergency remote learning to purposeful planning. Many are applying frameworks, such this one from Maine Department of Education, to help ensure and support students’ physical health and safety, social and emotional health, and academic learning. (See our COVID-19 FAQ on state guidance).
Regardless of the form learning and teaching takes in the fall—whether on-site, remote, or a hybrid model—rural educators and leaders are committed to finding an approach that serves their learners and families. Those of us who work closely with rural schools and communities share common concerns about the long-term toll this pandemic may take on students, families, and educators, given the central role that schools serve culturally, socially, and economically. We are particularly concerned about those schools and communities with the fewest resources. However, we also recognize the resilience, commitment to place, and caring that exists in these communities. “Every rural community has an advantage,” said Dr. Pratt, reflecting on school reopening in the fall. “We already know it takes all of us to support, grow, and fulfill our future, and that future is grounded in the dreams and success of all of our rural students and schools.”