Over A Month Into E-learning, Rural Schools Face Challenges & Worry If They'll Be Online In The Fall

May 6, 2020

Coronavirus has highlighted the digital divide among low-income as well as rural students. Schools that don’t send students home with laptops rushed them equipment so they could do their homework online.

School administrators say some parents claim to have internet access, but it may only be through a phone plan. Districts have distributed hot spots for families without a plan or where service is undependable.

Particularly in rural communities like Montmorency, reliable internet connectivity is a major hurdle.

Montmorency is a K-8 district in Whiteside County with around 230 students. Alex Moore is the superintendent.

“On a good day, I get four megabytes per second download speed, so I knew that was going to be an issue. About half of our families probably have decent internet,” said Moore.

Even that “good day” download speed doesn’t meet the FCC’s minimum recommendation for e-learning.

For many younger students, remote learning has to be pencil and paper. Schools like Somonauk set up blocks of time where parents can walk into the school and grab their child’s materials while maintaining social distancing.

Jay Streicher is the superintendent at Somonauk. He says parents come in around once every week and a half to two weeks.

“They walk through, they see a table with their grade level, they find their kid’s stuff, they pick it up, they walk out, get a squirt of hand sanitizer and go on their way,” he said.

But these small districts do have some advantages. For one, they’ve both had teachers and staff reach out and talk to each family.

Moore says a middle school teacher at Montmorency is delivering lunch to their eighth grade students, dropping them off at a few houses per day.

“It gives her a chance to check in on them individually. And just, you know, have that personal touch,” he said.

The academic aspect of e-learning is still a work in progress, and districts know it just doesn’t replace the classroom experience.

In Illinois, grades can’t count against students during the COVID-19 crisis. Jay Streicher in Somonauk says that can sometimes lead to a lack of motivation.

“It's very difficult when you're dealing with high school students who interpret that a different way and they think well, that means I don't have to do anything,” he said.

While students focus on finishing out this school year, more and more school administrators have to consider long term effects.

If schools are still e-learning in the fall, some worry about how students will adjust to new classes and new teachers.

Jay Streicher says, “One of the first things you do is build a relationship with your students. And that's not going to be easy to do in Zoom. In fact, I think it'll be impossible.”

He says that teachers who already established social-emotional bonds have helped students get through e-learning even when motivation falls off.

“That's what inspires these kids to learn is knowing that these teachers care about them not just a test score, but them as a person and helping them pursue their dreams,” said Streicher.

Canceled spring sports and events are also disappointing for students and parents. Illinois State Superintendent Carmen Ayala recently announced that schools are not allowed to hold in-person graduations at this point.

Some districts had to cancel alternative events like drive-in senior celebrations as well.

In light of that news, some decided not to reschedule an in-person ceremony and just do graduation digitally.

Somonauk is planning an online event, but they’re also holding on to hope that students could walk across a stage in some way this summer.

“We at least want to have those on the calendar and, you know, try to be really positive that we're gonna get to a point where we can at least have something,” said Streicher.

In the meantime, plenty of schools, rural or not, are using social media to keep families engaged during the home stretch of at-home learning. Many are having digital spirit weeks. Streicher says they’re having daily challenges like cooking or showing off pets.

“If you can show us a picture of your dog, that's a positive,” he said.

As of now, the Illinois State Board of Education has not made any decisions on if some form of e-learning could carry on during the next school year.