As COVID-19 Shutters Schools, Rural Educators Face Unique Challenges

One in a Series of Articles from the Spring J322 Reporting Public Issues Course

When students in J322 (Reporting Public Issues) transitioned to online learning, one student expressed concern that she had planned to write the best piece of her college career this semester and it would no longer be possible by reporting remotely. Attitudes quickly changed to, “We’ve got this!” And they did. On the final day, that student said she did submit the finest piece – so far – of her college career. The J322 series of articles showcases students' work during this unique moment in history.

As COVID-19 continues to sweep across the state and officials determine how best to reopen the economy, at least one sector remains shut down.

The state’s schools, which made a swift decision in mid-March to close doors as the pandemic’s urgency grew, have left hundreds of thousands of families learning to deal with education’s transition online. Originally pegged to open up in early May, Gov. Greg Abbott said last week he would not consider letting schools resume in-person teaching before the 2019-2020 school year ends.

Educators at every level of administration have grown accustomed to seeking novel ways to rebound from the school closures. Distance learning has posed some difficulties, which are especially compounded in rural areas, where students might struggle with spotty Internet connectivity or have less resources. But administrators interviewed said they believe teachers and students have overwhelmingly made that transition to online learning as successful as possible.

“It’s hard; we’re trying to do what’s best for the health and safety of our kids,” said Michael Stevens, the superintendent of Channing Independent School District.

The biggest problem so far has been internet access, sometimes spotty in this small community in the Panhandle. While Stevens knows of other districts that set up hotspots in the campus parking lot, most students at Channing live in the outlying areas around the main town, and are bussed in from 30 minutes away in some cases, making it harder for students to access those services.

As superintendent of Channing, Stevens is used to shouldering the brunt of responsibility. The district contains only one school, which serves all students K-12. The administration is just Stevens himself and one principal.

“When you’re talking about big schools, you’ve got a lot of kids and a lot of teachers, but you also have a large support staff,” Stevens said. “But here, it’s just three or four people. You don’t have the assistant principals, executive don’t have all that. You’re it.”

For campus leaders as well, the challenges remain urgent: Ashley Fredo, the principal of Morningside Elementary School in New Braunfels, likens it to “building the highway while driving 80 miles per hour.” Teachers and administrators are still figuring it out, she said, but the first step was to sit down and figure out the basics: online accounts and password setup, how to get textbooks into students’ hands.

“Pretty much everything that we did took place within the school building,” Fredo said. “We’ve had to learn to transition outside.”

Morningside staff, like many other schools in the state, came up with multiple ways for students to learn, including online platforms and paper packets for those without reliable internet access. The school set up a technology checkout process and began distributing computer devices and wireless access to students who needed it.

Recognizing, too, that kids had urgent social and emotional needs, Fredo said classrooms began setting up Google Hangout sessions so they could chat with classmates and have some semblance of a normal routine.

Equity has been at the forefront of the process, Fredo said. With many students dealing with uncertain home environments or other pre-existing barriers keeping them from success, Morningside administration has emphasized that kids will not face a “punitive” grading system.

Instead, students will be required to submit a personal account at the end of the year detailing what they learned in quarantine. Students who don’t, for whatever reason, will have their status reviewed by a team of administrators.

“We’ve taken away the idea of if you don’t do your work you fail and you don’t go into the next grade, to account for all the unique situations that families are facing right now,” Fredo said.

Meanwhile in Northeast Texas, the small community of Mineola houses more than 2,000 students in its sole district, many of whom are also bussed in from surrounding areas. Stacy Morris, Mineola Elementary’s Principal, has been adjusting her duties in response to the pandemic.

Morris pays home visits with other teachers and streams bedtime stories on Facebook, a nightly show with special guests that has become an anticipated event for her students. Her campus has offered device and wifi checkouts and is also cautioning teachers to be careful about grades, moving to a pass/fail policy early last month.

“We’re doing everything we can to help these children academically and emotionally,” Morris said. “It’s all about making sure kids are getting what they need and then doing it all with a smile.”

Fredo said she is not sure how this extended closure will affect learning outcomes next year, as it is still too early to tell. But teachers are ultimately the best people to face this type of challenge, she said, as they’ve transformed the landscape of learning in a short period of time. One positive has even emerged: strengthened communication and partnerships with parents.

“This is what we do. We close gaps in teaching and learning all the time,” Fredo said. “What other system has successfully transitioned as quickly? We’re still impacting children and doing what needs to be done.”

Raga Justin
J322 Student