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COVID-19's Impact on Rural Schools

Rural education expert Mara Tieken discusses the unique challenges rural schools continue to face amid the pandemic.
Rural Ed

We don't often hear about the 15% of students who attend rural schools. It seems this population is often left out of national conversations about the impact of COVID on education. Mara Tieken, Ed.M.'06, Ed.D.'11, associate professor at Bates College, is an expert on rural schools and has been helping many rural school districts cope throughout the pandemic. In this episode, Tieken talks about some of the ways rural schools are getting through the pandemic and ideas on how to include rural schools in the national conversation.

Learn about the Rural Community Resource Hub.


Mara Tieken

I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Imagine spending two hours driving just to get to school or heading to a McDonald's parking lot to access the internet for a day of remote learning. Mara Tieken says that is the reality for many rural students in America and COVID-19 hasn't made it any easier.

She's an associate professor at Bates College who has long studied rural schools and is trying to help many rural districts cope with the pandemic as cases continue to rise. We don't often hear about rural schools so I asked Mara, why they are so often left out of the national conversation.

Mara Tieken: Most of the attention has been on particularly large urban districts but 15% of our students are rural and they've been left out of this conversation.

Jill Anderson: I mean, what are some of the unique challenges facing rural schools right now in the pandemic?

Mara Tieken: The one that has actually gotten a little bit more attention is the digital divide. We know that many rural areas don't have the same kind of internet access, the same kind of broadband access, as many of our urban and suburban areas do. I'm not saying it's not an urban issue as well because there are some communities that don't have strong access even in the middle of cities but that issue tends to be even more pronounced in rural areas.

And so as schools have gone remote in the spring and now some continue to be or we've got some families that are keeping their children at home and educating them remotely, they just might not have access. So that is probably one of the largest challenges right now. This challenge predates the pandemic. I get a little bit frustrated with some of the news coverage which is like, "Oh my God, there's a digital divide." But, no, we've known this. It's tragic and it's really affecting children in what they can access right now but this is also not unsurprising.

This is something that really needs some policy attention. We really need to make access more like water or electricity. So digital divide is certainly number one. Another big challenge as districts are reopening for in person learning is transportation. So in many rural areas transportation is a large chunk of the budget and also a large chunk of student's time. I know districts where kids are spending two hours on the bus each way in order to get to and from school.

If you think about then what this means to actually be socially distanced or to transport students safely just from a pandemic standpoint, the challenge is unbelievable. You might need to have just one student per bus seat. You might need to alternate bus seats, alternate rows. So this might mean running more buses and hiring more bus drivers. The cost for transportation right now, I think we're going to see that inflating and also many rural areas would struggle to even hire bus drivers before so those challenges are just multiplied.

Funding is a huge concern, everywhere of course, but poorer districts have less cushion and many rural areas are also poorer areas. So being able to cover some of the costs right now is hard and then I think, too, one of the big challenges just is the pandemic itself. I think there's been a little bit more attention to some of the cities that have been harder hit but right now in rural areas if you look at the number of new cases, rural areas make a disproportionately large portion of that.

So rural residents are about 14% of the population. Right now they are more than 20% of new cases, more than 20% of new deaths. And so we're starting to see that the pandemic, it's always been there in rural areas, but we're starting to see it becoming even more and more present in more and more places.

Jill Anderson: I have to imagine that this data may not exist yet but do you have any idea how many schools, or rural schools, were actually able to do some kind of remote learning?

Mara Tieken: There's sort of what happened in the spring and then what's going on now. So in the spring districts were just doing the best that they could and so many of them had a remote program but whether or not it was actually reaching all students I think was probably the more salient question. And I think the data from that is still emerging.

I've heard from a lot of district leaders about the very creative methods they had for trying to get more of their kids access to the internet. Some places were outfitting buses as hotspots and then driving the buses out to remote areas so families could access the wireless signal there. I also heard about families driving to McDonald's and parking in the parking lot and doing their work all day there. I heard about districts actually compiling lists of places where you can actually access free wifi.

Of course, this means that you need to have transportation of course to do this and is a car a good learning environment is another question entirely. Then there's also this question about effectiveness. But, back in the spring I think it was a bit of "Let's just do what we can," and then come this fall, looking at what sorts of plans districts had, rural districts are more likely to be in person than suburban and urban districts but again, do all students really have access I think is an important question to keep asking.

Jill Anderson: It's crazy to hear some of those examples you gave of what some schools are doing. It really puts things in perspective for someone like myself who's a parent of a child who has internet access, doesn't need to go get on a bus or go anywhere or do something or just the idea.

I'm trying to imagine driving to a McDonald's to have to get internet access. So that's just something to think about and obviously you just mentioned some of the ideas but I'm wondering, how have rural school leaders responded to this and been able to address some of those challenges and limitations for the fall?

Mara Tieken: Yes, trying to get internet access, get devices for everybody was a big priority. As I mentioned, rural districts are more likely to be in person. I think there's probably a number of factors shaping those kinds of decisions but I'm sure that internet access was one of them. I've also been hearing about districts stretching their budgets to try to get the hotspots and to get the devices for everybody. It's imperfect solutions for this pandemic. There are a lot of people just trying to make do right now. I would not want to be a rural administrator.

And that's just the whole tech piece. Then there's all of the other challenges that rural leaders are trying to figure out and think about right now too. One of the biggest things I heard about back in the spring was, how do you actually get meals to kids? Many students rely on schools to be able to get their lunches and often their breakfasts. Many places even send their kids home with food for the weekend. So if kids aren't coming to school how do you actually get your kids fed?

Many districts were establishing these really elaborate meal delivery services or programs where parents can come and in a safe way pick up food to be able to take it home. For those districts that are still doing remote learning right now they've got those same kind of challenges continuing.

As I talked to district leaders back in the spring I heard a lot of references to Maslow's hierarchy, hierarchy of needs, where what they were focused on most was making sure that their students were fed and safe and then once they felt a little bit better about that then they could worry about more of the learning challenges.

I think now that we've moved into the fall there's more of a focus on academics now. I don't want to say that there wasn't a focus on academics then but that was clouded by a real focus on how do we get our kids fed. How do we make sure they've got shelter, those sorts of concerns.

And now, some of those systems are more in place or that more of those students are actually coming back for in person learning or at least some sort of hybrid approach they can tackle more of the academic issues that come up.

Jill Anderson: One of the things that you did early on in response to the pandemic was created the Rural Education Community Resource Hub. Can you tell me a little bit about what that is and why you created it?

Mara Tieken: Pretty early on, after late March, I started to hear from funders and various rural leaders or rural serving organizations asking me, what can we do to help? What can we do to help rural schools right now or rural students or rural families? I didn't have a great answer to that question so I sent out a big email to a whole bunch of folks that I've worked with over the years, practitioners, and asked them, what are the needs? What are the strategies you're using? What do you wish you had? What's working well? What's not working well?

And I started to hear back from folks. All of a sudden I had this really great list of "Okay, these are some of the strategies we're trying, these are the things that we need, this is the information I wish we had." I was getting a little overwhelmed. I turned to the Harvard Education Redesign Lab, where I'd been doing some work with them, and we partnered together to create this Rural Community Resource Hub, which just pulls together a whole bunch of resources online, as well as some resources that can be helpful for supporting literally low bandwidth for parents or or teachers if the internet access just isn't there.

It's a hub or a compilation of resources. Some of its news. Some of it is teaching and learning supports, events coming up, reliable information about the pandemic itself. Looks at what different communities are doing or what different districts are doing across the country. So just a central location to keep all of this information and make it publicly accessible and to continue to compile it and grow it.

I've been working really closely with MK Montgomery at the Ed Redesign Lab, who's been great in helping to keep the site relevant and updated. We've been hearing good feedback that it's been useful and it's really informed by people working on the ground.

Jill Anderson: So one of the things we've already talked about is how often rural schools are left out of the national conversation on education and that clearly has continued to be an issue during times of COVID. I was going to ask you if anything has ever changed? If there's been any indication that that's changing but it sounds like it isn't.

Mara Tieken: No and I mean, I think the coverage tends to be pretty one dimensional. The one issue that has gotten a bit of coverage is the digital divide. Some of the coverage is great. I mean, it is certainly necessary. I really hope that one silver lining from this pandemic is that there is more attention on the digital divide and we actually do something meaningful around that.

But, like I said, the digital divide has always been there. We've known this is a problem. There have been rural residents complaining about this and advocating around this for decades, yet it still persists. And so to portray this as sort of a new issue I think is a little bit ... is acontextual. And so oftentimes the bit of rural education or rural communities that get some coverage it's not always the kind of fulsome coverage that we really need.

I've heard other misconceptions as well, like hearing people talk about, "Well, the coronavirus really just isn't affecting rural places." And that's just blatantly not true. As I mentioned before right now there are a disproportionate number of new cases and new deaths in rural areas and some of the biggest hotspots have been in rural places. The pandemic has really hit many rural communities of color particularly hard. These stories are left out of a lot of the coverage, which just ends up perpetuating myths about rural America being all white or rural America just really not being touched by the pandemic.

Jill Anderson: How do you think we can change the national conversation and even add policy to pay attention more and do more for our rural schools?

Mara Tieken: In large part some of it's about amplifying rural voices and making sure that policymakers are accountable to rural people. So partly it's about how we vote, who we vote in, what sort of experience they have. But then when policymakers are in office they need to be getting out into rural communities and working with rural communities rather than this, "Oh, I know what you need. This will fix things," There can sometimes be a sort patronizing or service mentality towards serving rural communities rather than it being collaborative, working with rural communities, talking to rural residents, getting out into rural schools.

So we need more rural folks actually in office, doing this work and then we also need people that do hold office to be getting out into rural communities and working with rural leaders. Rural places are assessed with the same kinds of inequalities as urban places are and so as our policymakers get out into rural communities they need to make sure they're actually listening to the entire community and especially those voices that get less heard. And again, particularly rural communities of color because right now they're completely left out of the national conversation about rural America.

Jill Anderson: And what about the role of education funding and changing how this plays out?

Mara Tieken: If I could wave my magic wand I would love for us to move away from funding schools through property taxes because we know that many rural areas just don't have that kind of property base so then they can't raise the ... there are many rural areas that tax themselves at an incredibly high rate but can just get nothing back for it because they don't have that kind of wealth there. If we could move away from this reliance on local property taxes for funding our schools I think that would be a huge step in the right direction.

And then also, we need to think about not just equality but equity. There are some places that are going to need more money, perhaps because of generations of underfunding their schools or because of higher costs around transportation or other things. Moving away from property taxes, moving towards a kind of equity funding or a justice funding would be really, really important and I think also, this is where some degree of local flexibility in how funds are used becomes really important because again, certain things are just going to cost more in a rural area and making sure that local policymakers have the capacity and the flexibility to be able to meet those needs as they arise.

Jill Anderson: What do you think about the future of rural schools and how COVID may affect the schools and even the students in the long term?

Mara Tieken: There's beginning to be some research about what was the effect of all the spring closures on student's learning and we're already beginning to see that it had an inequitable effect. Wealthier students, whiter students tended to have more access to better educational opportunities and so their learning wasn't quite as impacted as poorer students or students of color. So we know that there's already been an impact in terms of the kind of academic opportunities students had. I imagine that's going to continue because right now we are not back to a situation in which all students are learning inside of schools.

So looking at the inequities in terms of access to academic content, rigorous learning opportunities, I think that's an effect that we're going to need to follow and I worry about. So that's certainly one area of concern. Another area of concern is the financial picture. We know that municipalities are going to be struggling for a while because of this. Budgets are going to be tight. It's going to be really hard to raise revenue and so this could mean layoffs for teachers. This could also raise the risk of school closures and I mean permanent school closures, which sometimes happen in response to budget crises.

So the financial scene is pretty bleak right now and also it should be noted that rural areas actually hadn't fully recovered from the recession back in 2007, 2008 and so this, the recession we're seeing now, is already layered upon that. So this is going to be a big concern for a while.

Jill Anderson: Mara Tieken is an associate professor at Bates College. She's the author of Why Rural Schools Matter.

I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.



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