What should rural education look like post-COVID?


In mid March of 2020, the normal world, reality came tumbling down as a novel coronavirus, Covid-19, shuttered schools and transformed face to face teaching into an untenable position in almost all public and private schools in the USA and many places abroad. The respiratory virus and the response to the pathogen required states and schools to shift to a quarantine based model, with some online lessons, and multiple packets of worksheets emerging from teachers and support staff.

The response to the virus, forcing almost all Americans to work from home, now meant parents were working with, or in many cases, in parallel to their students for the entire day. No longer were children placed on a bus or dropped off at school while the adults went to work, came home, and ran children to activities and events, before a mad dash of homework at the end of the day. Weekdays bled into weekends, and laundry, food prep, and distance work and learning became the routine, and the norm.

Positives emerged from this world pandemic, as many people now began to understand what teachers really do for students. In many places, teacher parades (in their car) and zoom meetings, and phone calls, became reality checks, as educators tried to show their students, many of whom would never physically be in the same space as their teacher again, that they are missed, they are valued, and they still weigh heavily on the teacher’s mind, even as the teachers are working with their own children at home with school work. In response, people realized HOW MUCH WORK teaching is, and how DIFFICULT good teaching is, on a day in and day out basis. Parents respected their own children’s teachers, but now began to see the profession was once again a group of dedicated, and super humans, who do a lot more than is required.

Some negatives have really come home to roost though. First, society is now realizing that the school is a critical and significant resource in feeding children. As almost 25% of American children live in poverty, schools have again, with herculean effort,  organized ways to deliver a lunch and a breakfast to houses. many local restaurants, those most in danger of closing due to the health crisis, and looming economic crisis, have provided free meals to young people as well.

Second, with the emergency turn to internet based learning, many areas, especially rural areas, still do not have the infrastructure to support this form of communication, information delivery, and contact with the rest of the world. In 2020, as I use high speed WiFi in a suburban area of upstate NY, students not more than 10 miles to the east have no internet coverage, very spotty cell service, and limited cable access. The need for internet in the present society has moved many to claim that the net is no longer a service, it is a utility.

Third, many students do not have devices in their homes capable for use. With libraries and public community based organizations closed because of the health crisis, students who relied on the desk top computers in those spaces are cut off. Very few have a mobile device, such as a tablet, or lap top, do do research, read e-mails from teachers, or do homework on line. It has become crystal clear that there is a profound difference among social classes between levels of at home resources.

Fourth, The education system in the US continues to demand too much from educators. The drive in education for the past 30 years, to hold professionals with graduate degrees and state licenses “accountable” has in reality been a disguise to demand way more than is humanly capable for a sound, rational, and balanced existence in education and life. Just like the middle ages demanded educators who were religious monks or the sisters of the teaching orders in the late industrial era, teachers are sacrificing their own children’s learning, time, and curiosity to ensure their classes are conducted. We are also seeing so many educators asking students to complete worksheets and packets because… somebody wants proof that learning happened, and that teaching occurred.

I hope this situation, as bad as it is leads to some changes and reforms in education. Specifically, I hope that funding for education increases to levels that allow each and every child access to internet at home, with a device that can allow research and learning.

I hope that each and every child can have more hands on experiences which align with developmentally appropriate activities like play and exploration. Classrooms should not be worksheet after worksheet. They should be experimentation, and experiences, and field trips outside of school into the environs. More adults are required in the classroom, to guide students to learn about many different skills, and hobbies, and arts, and museums. The classroom should be reserved for presenting on learning experiences from the field.

I believe that small rural schools should be supported with greater resources. If not, our smallest schools will not survive the impending economic problems, which have always relied on the illusion of wealth or money or value.

Rural schools are still trying to spend both sides of a nickle, and kudos for that effort. But they need relief. They need the ability to harness distance learning and off site student collaboration across greater networks to achieve great things. Children are fascinated with the world. They want to learn. Yet somewhere along the way, learning morphs from a joy to a chore. We need less standardization and more individualization, and the resources, professionals, and systems to undertake these models.

I fear what will happen though, is that budget constraints will damage our learning, and we, as Americans, will return to our regularly scheduled programs of accepting the givens. I hope that a movement will begin, one which demands changes, epic changes, to our educational system which values creative thinking, critical exploration of real life, and a movement away from paper to experiences. America is at a crossroads moment, and I believe that this is the sputnik spark to light the flames of reform.

An earlier version of this piece appeared here.

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