K-12 Education

Schooling During a Pandemic: The Unique Challenges Facing Students in Rural Districts

July 28, 2020  • Barbara Sheehan, Rising Sophomore at George Rogers Clark High School & Education and Society Program

In the first week that school was out, I continuously received Remind messages from teachers asking one question: “Do you have internet connection?” I do, but it is slow. I am among the more fortunate in Clark County, Kentucky, however, as many students in my district do not have wifi, and many others have remarkably unreliable service. Internet providers offered free internet to these students, but there are no internet lines running to where some students live. To remedy this, the school gave packets to students that would not be able to do work online. Unfortunately, they could not provide students without internet a means to communicate with teachers either. Just like many other students’, my school year cascaded into unknown territory that nobody was prepared for. But now, as districts prepare to return to school, I fear that they are gambling with students’ education and lives. Rural counties currently lack sufficient solutions for both in-school and online learning, meaning unique solutions must be developed for the upcoming school year.

“Rural counties currently lack sufficient solutions for both in-school and online learning, meaning unique solutions must be developed for the upcoming school year.”

— Barbara Sheehan, a sophomore from Winchester, KY, emphasizes the need for innovation in rural districts.

Free breakfast and lunch is provided for every student at my school, and ample students rely on this. When schools closed, students were not able to get meals. Districts sent out meal buses to a variety of locations, but not every student was able to go. There are no sidewalks to walk on; you have to drive to get food.

In rural counties, the commute to work can be long. This means that young kids are left at home from early morning to even late evening. Throughout the day, it is up to them to finish schoolwork and make meals, among other responsibilities. This creates a recipe for students to fall behind. With parents that aren’t able to help with schoolwork and potentially no internet access, these kids are on their own. Teachers aren’t able to check in. If they don’t understand a topic, they aren’t able to get support.
If students return to in-school instruction this fall, it is inevitable that there will be cases of COVID-19 caused by the return. There is potential for schools to become a hotspot. If a school becomes a hotspot, they could shut down, resulting in a swift transition to online learning. Many counties in rural Kentucky, including my own, only have one high school and one middle school. This means that when a given school closes, every student in that grade is learning online. This leads to the same internet access issues that schools were trying to avoid in the first place. Beyond that, while school closures are supposed to limit the spread of the virus, parents don’t always have the luxury of being able to quarantine, meaning they could be spreading the virus that their child got from school.

The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way that administrators approach schooling. As they develop solutions from the helicopter view, I urge them to consider the unique challenges facing students in my district. Build a meal bus system that is accessible to students that live in the most remote parts of our community. Create telework opportunities that give students without internet equal access to learning. Commit to keeping schools closed until there is a two week decline in cases. I trust the scientists that have researched this virus, and I hope that our administrators will take the virus and its consequences on our schooling with equal seriousness.