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Rural Schools Struggle With Road Ahead In Era Of Coronavirus

Third grade teacher Maya Davis attends training before her school district reopens.
Kirk Siegler
Third grade teacher Maya Davis attends training before her school district reopens.

At the Bruneau-Grandview School District in rural southern Idaho, a couple of dozen teachers are crowded into the small library.

They're doing a refresher training for online teaching. In person-classes are scheduled to begin Monday, but with coronavirus cases continuing to rise in Idaho and other states, it's an open question for how long.

Superintendent Ryan Cantrell, who's helping lead the Google Classroom training, is advising his staff that last-minute decisions will be the unfortunate normal this upcoming school year. Parents have the option of sending their kids to school this week, or staying fully online or some combination of both.

A recent survey indicated that about three-quarters of the district's families were comfortable sending their kids back to school this fall.

When the district abruptly went to online-only last spring, Cantrell says some students dropped off the map and learning suffered, especially in outlying areas where there's little or no Internet.

"There's a general consensus of let's get moving," Cantrell says. "Let's get the kids back in here so that we can find out where they're at, how we can help them."

Those kids who do return can expect some changes. Desks will be spaced apart in classrooms and classes are being staggered to minimize the number of students in the hall at one time. The school day will also be shortened to allow for more online teaching.

In a small rural school like this, teachers like Maya Davis will be expected to work in both worlds.

"That will be a little bit challenging to navigate because teaching online itself was a full-time job, and obviously teaching in a classroom is a full-time job," Davis said. "But we're just making it work."

Schools around the country have been grappling with how or even whether to reopen. In the two isolated farming towns of Grandview and Bruneau, which form the joint school district, there are fewer than a dozen known COVID-19 cases. But in nearby more-urban counties, where some of the staff here commute from, infection rates continue to climb out of control.

In Idaho, public health experts have warned that schools that are reopening may just have to close down again because it's not safe.

At the training, Davis, who teaches third grade, was one of only a handful of teachers wearing a mask. Masks won't be required this semester, except on school buses. She and a few other staffers commute one hour each way from the Boise area.

"I wear a mask just to protect my community," Davis says."I don't want to be the one coming from Boise bringing COVID into the community."

Masks just aren't that common in this mostly isolated, rural community along the Snake River, where social distancing is generally a fact of life. And in small towns like this, the school is often a reflection of a community's values, says superintendent Cantrell. Yet it feels almost inevitable to him that there will be coronavirus cases soon after in-person classes resume.

"I think it's only a matter of time before we're back to all virtual," Cantrell says.

Superintendent Ryan Cantrell wants to get students back in class, even if just temporarily, after months of uncertainty and struggles with distance learning.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
Superintendent Ryan Cantrell wants to get students back in class, even if just temporarily, after months of uncertainty and struggles with distance learning.

He'll work closely with the local public health district to do contact tracing.

"I expect almost immediately to have to start making decisions about who comes to school, who's quarantined, do we need to shut school down for two weeks," Cantrell says.

This is widely seen as an uncomfortable reality in Idaho, where generally most state leaders have been pushing for businesses and schools to reopen. This is one of the most politically red corners of the country, yet the state also now has a big red mark next to it as having one of the nation's fastest growing rates of coronavirus infections.

Some larger school districts in the state are beginning the school year all online. And public health experts have warned schools that are reopening that they may just have to close down again because it's not safe.

"Listening to experts to set policy is an elitist approach," said state. Sen. Steven Thayn.

At a recent legislative hearing, Thayn, vice chair of an education committee, pushed a bill that would take authority away from Idaho's local health districts so they can't enforce school closures or mandatory mask orders. Many Republicans argued that local school boards should have the final say, not public health experts.

That bill and another that would limit a school's liability when it comes to coronavirus lawsuits is likely to be debated in a special session of the Legislature later this month.

"There are a lot of people that are willing to go back to school, willing to go back to work and yet we're letting a few fearful people control the lives of those of us that are not fearful," Thayn said at the hearing.

In the Bruneau-Grandview district anyway, there is certainly some fear about the virus. But school leaders are also worried about students not learning. The district had long been labeled as poor-performing and things had started to turn around until the virus.

This is just another pressure point for schools across the country, and there's no clear blueprint on how to go forward.

For now, Davis says she's just hoping to keep herself safe and her classroom clean "and teach my kids as much as I possibly can."

One of her first lesson plans for Monday will be a Zoom session with a friend who's a doctor who has treated coronavirus patients. They'll discuss with the third-graders the severity of the virus and how they can protect themselves and their families.

Copyright 2024 NPR

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.