2 small districts confront challenges of COVID and rural America

'We were really making some strides academically prior to shutdown,' district administrator says
By: | February 5, 2021
Attendance has increased this COVID school year at the Wabeno School District in rural northeastern Wisconsin.Attendance has increased this COVID school year at the Wabeno School District in rural northeastern Wisconsin.

Educators have dealt with a lot fewer disciplinary issues this COVID-disrupted school year at the Wabeno School District in rural northeastern Wisconsin.

“I think it’s because kids are more into a routine, and they’re being separated socially or personally distanced,” District Administrator Jeffrey Walsh tells District Administration.

Teachers—rather than instructional aides—have been accompanying kids out to recess. Along with the big decrease in office referrals, attendance has increased, Walsh says.

“Kids didn’t like being home from March until June,” he says

More from DA: How to scale 4 staffing innovations inspired by COVID

On the other hand, the disruptions have had an impact on student achievement.

“We were really making some strides academically prior to last March’s shutdown,” Walsh says. “With the closure, we have not been able to continue with these strides as much because of virtual school and having to send paper copies home for those who have no internet.”

That’s one of the biggest challenges of life in Wisconsin’s Northwoods: Even those who can afford broadband can get reliable access. This is one key reason Wabeno administration focused on bringing students back in-person.

This school year, Wabeno has offered in-person learning every day the week except Wednesday, when teachers plan and check in on virtual students.

“Because we’re a smaller school district, we’ve been able to be in person, we didn’t have to worry about thousands of kids coming through,” Walsh says. “We’re able to have small class sizes, we’re able to keep numbers down within classes, and we’re able to social distance.”

Walsh expects some of the adjustments his educators made to last beyond COVID; one of those not letting outside visitors into the building. He also expect his staff to continue with increase sanitization to reduce transmission of colds, flus and other illnesses.

Also, allowing students to eat breakfast in classrooms has led to smoother transitions into instruction.

Finally, classes will be held virtually on future snow days. Students who don’t have broadband access will be given an excuse absence or a chance to make up the work, Walsh says.

‘Reverse capitalism’ or rural hiring

Beyond COVID, offering students a diverse curriculum that includes advanced courses, such as AP physics, says Mark Gruen, superintendent the Royall School District in southern Wisconsin

“If we offered AP physics, we’d be lucky to have one or two kids,” Gruen says. “We have six or seven AP courses, and we don’t always fill them.”

This lack of advanced courses can leave rural kids at a disadvantage when applying to college, and their transcripts show less academic rigor compared to students from city and suburban districts, he says.

Gruen and his team have been working to connect kids to AP classes offered virtually through a regional education consortium.

More from DA: How COVID magnifies a rural district’s challenges

The district has partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Platteville to offers college-level English classes, which, Gruen says, are better than AP because students get the credits without having to take a high-stakes exam.

Students can also earn college CTE credit in eight courses offered by through the Wisconsin Technical College System.

Meanwhile, enrollment is steadily declining. Gruen expects high school enrollment to drop from 150 to about 130 over the next few years.

Staffing-wise, Gruen speaks highly of team and its response to COVID. The district has also been able to hire back some of its own alumni.

However, rural districts in Wisconsin across the country also find themselves sometimes having to offer higher salaries to lure teachers away from city districts, he said.

“Most college kids want to be where action is,” Gruen says,.  “I call it reverse capitalism—we can pay them more to pick the district they don’t want.”

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