How coronavirus closures are impacting rural districts

'Self-paced learning is going to drive our curriculum from here on out,' superintendent says
By: | April 14, 2020
Coronavirus school closures have only brought greater attention to some of the equity issues facing rural districts, such as the Washington Parish School System in Louisiana.Coronavirus school closures have only brought greater attention to some of the equity issues facing rural districts, such as the Washington Parish School System in Louisiana.

Closing school buildings only accelerated Sunray ISD’s journey toward a new model of student-driven instruction that has been freed from the strictures of standardized tests.

For the last few years, the rural North Texas district has been anchoring its curriculum in research-based, self-paced learning that will allow high school seniors to graduate with associate’s degrees, Superintendent Marshall Harrison says.

“Self-paced learning is going to drive our curriculum from here on out,” says Harrison, a member of the District Administration Leadership Institute. “We hope to come out on the other side of this to show people that the days of pen and paper and standardized testing is stepping our society backward.”

Remote learning requires teachers to give up some control of instruction as students become independent thinkers, Harrison says.

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The long-term goal is for students to earn dual credit at Amarillo College (a community college), graduate with an associate’s degree and then be able to easily transfer to nearby West Texas A&M University or other institutions.

Harrison and his team were able to supply all students with computers and WiFi hotspots before the district shut down. Sunray ISD has also shifted to a two-tier grading system in which students are marked each week as “passing” or “non-compliant.”

“An F just shuts a kid down,” Harrison says. “With a non-compliant grade, the teacher and principal can contact parents to see what’s going on.”

[VIDEO: Sunray ISD recently passed a $12 million bond to build a new CTE facility.]

As a rural district that is planning to dive ever more deeply into online instruction, the biggest challenge Sunray ISD faces is the cost and speed of internet connections in the rural community, Harrison says.

“What COVID-19 has done is bring parent involvement back into the system,” Harrison says. “And when this is all said done, the respect level the community has for our teachers will increase tenfold because they’ll understand the challenges.”

Will digital equity remain a priority?

Rural districts were contending with inequities in digital access long before coronavirus shut down school buildings, says Eileen Belastock, the CTO and director of academic technology at the Mount Greylock Regional School District in western Massachusetts.

“This has made digital equity a No. 1 priority in many districts,” says Belastock, an FETC 2020 presenter on data privacy and student engagement. “I’m glad that it’s in the forefront and I hope it will continue to be in the forefront. I’m concerned that, once this is over, schools are going to take back hotspots and take back devices, and go back to the way it was before.”

While schools are closed—and particularly when buildings reopen—district leaders and their teams will have to consistently track which students need devices and reliable, high-speed connections at home.

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Some of that data is easily obtainable from logs of which students are checking out hotspots or computers most frequently.

In her district, educators are closely tracking which students aren’t participating regularly in online instruction. And principals and library media specialists have been reaching out to families to determine who is in need of adequate technology.

Because WiFi in her area is spotty, Belastock and her team have provided some students with Kajeet mobile hotspots that pick up signals from any internet or cable provider.

Going forward, she says, school leaders should continue offering the professional development teachers have received in online instruction over the last few weeks, and guide families as students use new online platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom.

For example, educators and families, before adopting certain free online resources, need to determine whether those tools protect students’ privacy.

“We have to see this as not just a coronavirus issue,” Belastock says. “A silver lining is that this will show us what we have not done in online learning.”

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.

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