Pandemic Impact on Rural Schools

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Whitehall, N.Y. (NEWS10) It’s been nearly a year since the pandemic began, shutting down schools and sending kids home to learn remotely. Executive Director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State, David Little, said while there is some hope on the horizon for next year, for now, things mostly remain status quo for rural districts. “We all hoped we’d be in a different spot a year out,” said Little.

He said not only are the majority of students in his district still learning in a hybrid remote model, but internet accessibility is still an issue. He said many families are even driving to their schools and sitting the parking lot just to get wifi.

He said in order for students to return to full in-person learning, the state must relax their social distancing requirements. While teachers are a prioritized population for vaccination, he said the slow rollout and the lack of accessibility are causing more setbacks. “Even the Federal Government is saying we really hope everybody is ready by July. That’s not May, that’s not April, there’s an awful lot of school that is still going to be held under our current format,” said Little. When asked whether he thought the COVID vaccine would be mandated in schools, Little said he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon because it’s so new and could create a liability. He added that experts now say schools have proven to be an environment with low transmission.

Whitehall Superintendent, Patrick Dee, said if the state loosens restrictions, they’re prepared to bring their students back immediately for full-time in-person learning. “In our Junior.Senior high, our student body has been completely remote since the start of the school year as a result of the substantial damage that was done from the storm of August 24th.  We do however believe that we will begin bringing back 7th and 8th grade students on March 1st and 9-12th grade students on or about March 15th.  Our reconstruction has occurred much quicker than we had anticipated,” said Dee.

In terms of proms and graduations Dee said they will get as creative as necessary to provide their seniors with memorable end of the year activities even if that means they happen outdoors. “At this point, we HOPE that we may be able to host a “typical” graduation for our senior class if the Governor provides schools with any latitude.  If this does not occur, we will move forward with an outdoor ceremony on the front lawn of the school as we accomplished last year.  Working in concert with the Town of Whitehall, we were able to close Buckley Road in front of the school and host a very nice socially distanced graduation where everyone who wanted to attend was able,” said Dee.

Before those seniors head off to college, Little said since they haven’t been able to do much testing, so they don’t have a good handle on how this group of kids is fairing and he genuinely believes they may need another year of eligibility.  “Maybe like the NCAA allowing another year of eligibility for college athletes, maybe we need to add another year of eligibility for high school seniors just so that they can develop and get the kind of courses that they need before they go to college. I don’t know that we need to necessarily rush to get them in college because particularly in rural areas where kids haven’t had the breath of curriculum that really prepares them properly for college, there’s already a tremendous dropout rate, so to know that these kids are behind in all of these things and still send them on their way is probably not appropriate,” said Little. 

Dee said their biggest challenge is transportation. “The greatest impact is our ability to only put 22 students on a 65 passenger bus and allowing only 12 students in a classroom space with the 6′ social distancing requirements.  Our K-6 students have been following a Maroon/White schedule to enable the district to transport aboard school busses those students that cannot be driven by families to school.  If we had latitude with the number of students that could be put aboard a bus, we could have every K-6 student in school daily,” said Dee.

Dee added that he’s not sure if navigating the pandemic is any easier or harder depending on the size of a school district, he said both rural and urban schools come with very unique challenges.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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