Packaged books for students learning remotely are left on a table outside Oakdale Elementary School in Brandon, Mississippi. In rural school districts nationwide, educators are coming up with creative solutions to internet connectivity issues and detachment among students. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Kayden Rosebur’s first year of high school didn’t go as she expected. Instead of meeting new friends and dashing through the hallways between bells, the 15-year-old joins her classmates remotely from her house in the rural Mississippi Delta. Her unstable internet service keeps her disconnected.

She has met her teachers in person only twice—to take exams. She doesn’t feel comfortable in class because no one turns on their cameras or makes conversation.

She frequently turns her assignments in late because a computer program malfunctions or her connection drops. To get around her spotty home internet, she uses the hotspot provided by her school, Coahoma Early College—located 35 miles from her home—but often that doesn’t make much of a difference.

“Our internet connections will be bad so it will log me out of class. I’d have to go back to the links and I’ll have to log on again,” Rosebur said.

“If the internet is OK, then sometimes the programs will malfunction. That’s hard for me when I’m trying to take notes or when I’m trying to work on schoolwork.”

Rosebur is one of an estimated 15 million elementary and secondary students across the country who lack adequate internet or do not have devices at home, according to a November report by CommonSense, a nonprofit education organization, and Boston Consulting Group, a management consulting firm.

The problem is especially acute in poor and rural communities, where the pandemic-driven switch to remote education has been particularly challenging.

Nearly a year after Covid-19 upended schools, many rural educators still struggle to reach and engage with students. Teachers say they worry about the mental health and well-being of the students they can’t see. And students miss deadlines and the chance to forge relationships with their peers, threatening both their academic achievement and social development.

While these issues affect students in urban and suburban areas, they can be worse for rural schools, whose sizes often allow for close-knit student, teacher and community relationships, said Mara Tieken, a rural education expert, author and associate professor at Bates College in Maine.

Many states and rural education agencies have tried to help. To support remote learning, state departments and local education agencies used some money from the CARES Act to enhance technology infrastructure and purchase online devices such as Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots. So far, more than a dozen states have used federal dollars to provide internet access and devices to families.

In Mississippi, for example, the state Department of Education distributed about 400,000 devices to local school districts to ensure every student had access to technology. Despite this effort, 60% of local school districts that participated in a December survey by the Mississippi Department of Education said they use a combination of paper packets and virtual learning because of poor internet or no connectivity.

Districts use instructional, or paper, packets when students do not have access to technology or the internet. This furthers educational inequities because paper packets do not afford students the opportunity for teacher-student interaction the way a traditional classroom setup does, Mississippi students say.

A study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research center, found that of 477 school systems across the country conducting remote learning, rural school districts were less likely to provide students with hotspots or devices than urban districts. About 48% of urban school districts provided hotspots, 20 percentage points more than rural school systems. And 84% of urban school districts provided devices, almost double the number of rural ones.

Tieken said every state is trying to expand access and services to rural families, but “it’s really patchwork” and “not hitting the families” who need it the most.

“Unless you do something differently, [these issues] are going to be there after the pandemic,” Tieken told Stateline.

“If you really want to think about equity and change, we need to recognize that this is not a temporary problem.”

The bottom line: Educating children online cannot happen without addressing infrastructure and access, Tieken said.

‘A Lot of Creativity’

It’s challenging to teach when students can’t meaningfully access materials, said Alexandra Melnick, a high school English teacher in Leland, Mississippi, a small town with fewer than 4,000 people. Her school district provided students with computers and hotspots, but other factors—power outages, bad weather, data overages or computer illiteracy—can keep students from interacting or getting online.

On a normal day, nearly half of Melnick’s students can’t log into her Google classroom or Zoom. Many others rarely turn on their cameras.

Melnick has tried several ways to engage students, including slipping materials into home mailboxes, allowing students to audibly respond as she types notes in a shared Google document, and encouraging them to make videos and mood boards, which are collages of photos, text and art that students can use to express their feelings on a topic.

Alexandra Melnick, a high school English teacher in the Mississippi Delta, struggles daily to reach students in her virtual classroom. She’s tried creative ways to keep students engaged by showing videos and dropping instructional materials in their mailboxes. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Melnick)

“Sometimes I have students that type all of the stuff out [in a Google document] and it doesn’t save because the internet cut out or they don’t know how to go back and find the work that they did,” Melnick said.

She dropped off books and ACT prep materials to students who couldn’t stop by the school because their families had pre-existing health conditions. Students would come to the window and wave as she dropped materials into mailboxes.

“[It’s] a lot of creativity, a lot of modifications,” Melnick said.

Luke Glaser, an Advanced Placement English and calculus teacher in Hazard, Kentucky, nearly two hours southeast of Lexington, echoed Melnick’s sentiments. With students on a hybrid model, a portion in-person and others remote, Glaser must plan one lesson for two different audiences.

For instance, if he is presenting a graph to students in class, it is not visible for online students. On top of that, convincing students that calculus matters is more difficult in the pandemic era, he said.

“If I have those students in front of me, I can motivate them. I can prove to them it's worthwhile,” he told Stateline in a phone interview. “Virtually, as I’m staring at 16 black boxes, it’s a little more complicated.”

He decided to switch things up this school year, by allowing students to be more collaborative. In small groups, students create their own tests based on classroom objectives with different types of questions and an answer key.

But the change was not sustainable for “kids who had connection issues” or “completely opted out of attending” class, he said.

“It’s like the more creative you get, it feels like the more problems you run into,” Glaser added.

Bridging Gaps

The Fannett-Metal School District in rural Pennsylvania is currently in-person, but it moved to fully virtual instruction in late September, then again in December because of Covid-19 infections in schools.

Superintendent David Burkett said the district tried a few ways to connect with students. The district became an internet hub, so students can connect to Wi-Fi outside school buildings, and students also could connect from nearby universities such as Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, since the district couldn’t purchase hotspots for all of them. Officials set up drop box locations at the elementary and secondary school buildings, the only two schools in the district. Teachers created paper packets.

Kristine Gilmore, superintendent of D.C. Everest Area School District in Washington state, told Stateline her district deployed hotspots, built Wi-Fi centers in school parking lots, distributed low-cost LTE-embedded devices, and provided resources in multiple languages.

The Patterson Joint Unified School District, located in Patterson, California, gave families in rural areas a router and a modem to access internet at home through a private network developed by Motorola.

In other rural school districts, school officials created maps to pinpoint free internet access locations, bought data for students’ cell phones or tablets, set up outdoor work areas and connected families with low-cost or free internet options, according to the National Center for Rural Education Research Networks, a Harvard University education research center focused on rural school districts.

Invisible Students

Students enrolled in remote learning shared similar stories of feeling isolated and detached in their virtual classrooms.

Kamiyah Driver, a 10th grader from Tunica, Mississippi, attends Coahoma Early College. She said she misses her friends “all the time,” because normally she would hang with them at school. Even though they’re able to talk on the phone, virtual learning makes it impossible to spend quality time together.

Darius Huddleston Jr., a senior at Madison Shannon Palmer High School in Marks, Mississippi, enjoys texting and talking on the phone with his friends, but he misses interacting face-to-face. In order to see them, he has to schedule a Zoom call. He prioritizes his health over the risk of getting exposed to Covid-19, he said.

“I do miss just having spare time with the few people I am close with. I hope that they are safe and not getting sick or any immediate danger,” Huddleston Jr. said. “We’ll just wait this out and hopefully we can see each other.”

Driver, Rosebur and Huddleston Jr. agreed on one thing: They feel disengaged from school, teachers and classmates.

“It makes me a little upset,” Rosebur said. “I was excited to meet new people and make friends this year, but I can barely speak to my classmates without feeling like it's the first day of school.”

Rosebur initiated conversations with her classmates but didn’t get any response unless it was related to class work, she said.

Schools often are the places where rural students can access mental health services, said Tieken, the rural education expert. But the pandemic has made it impossible for schools to bring in doctors for site visits.

Darius Huddleston Jr. is a senior at Madison Shannon Palmer High School in Marks, Mississippi, who opted into virtual learning to avoid the risk of Covid-19 exposure. Like many of his peers, Huddleston does not have efficient internet service. (Photo courtesy of Darius Huddleston Jr.)

Tieken said she fears that the educational challenges of the pandemic could have long-term consequences for students, denying some of them a college education or a solid foothold in the workforce. The risks are especially acute for students of color and those whose parents did not attend college.

“Students that aren’t able to access schools remotely, are not learning as much and so that has long-term implications,” Tieken said. “We’ll get kind of new [achievement] gaps that continue.”

Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works to improve public education, said it is essential to “find out how many students became invisible” during the pandemic. Students who faced trauma, social isolation or just didn’t show up, he said, need support.

Pruitt said states should survey students and families to identify the barriers to internet access, from cost to megabyte usage.

“There’s got to be a really deliberate attention to a long-term plan for how you build and sustain infrastructure,” Pruitt said. “This is not just an education issue. This is something that states need to take on as an economic driver.”

Rural communities are not all the same, so approaches that work in one place may not work in another. Tieken suggests the way to tackle this is by prioritizing the needs of rural communities above wealthier communities and considering how race and class can shape opportunities.

Despite the challenges that students have faced, Melnick, the Mississippi Delta teacher, said she was amazed at how much her pupils have retained and achieved. The focus this year, she reiterated, should be on addressing student trauma rather than academic performance, she added.

“Maybe we should be talking more about how our kids like thriving and surviving through all of this. It doesn't have to be a negative thing,” Melnick said.

“I don’t know about you, but let's watch you live through a global pandemic when you were 17. Why are we falling behind? It's remarkable they're doing as well as they are.”

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