Bridging the Digital Divide: Covid-19 Brings an Illinois Community Together

April 15, 2020 |
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Adapting to the new realities of work, home and social life brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in higher levels of stress and uncertainty for most people. These worries are no less true for public schools--- especially in our rural school districts. With this advent of this crisis, rural schools had to quickly transform lesson plans and teaching methods---at times having been given just days or even hours to prepare, while also needing to teach a student body that is typically more dispersed, lacking in critical infrastructure, and less economically stable than their urban counterparts. Despite these challenges rural schools are stepping up to the task at hand and creating effective systems for handling the crisis while boosting school morale and fostering community solidarity in the process.

Situated at the western edge of Illinois along the Mississippi river, West Central CUSD #235 serves roughly 800 students spread across a patchwork of small communities in Henderson County. In many ways, West Central and Henderson County are characteristic of much of rural America, with widespread poverty, an aging infrastructure, and a historic trend of economic, capital, and population flight.

When Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker recently ordered schools to close across the state, West Central teachers and staff were forced to recreate curricula and redefine the role of their school in the community. Despite the daunting task at hand, Superintendent Paula Markey is excited with how the response has evolved in Henderson County.

Before becoming superintendent, Markey was a teacher in numerous rural schools throughout the region, even serving as an instructor at Spoon River Community College for a time. Over the course of her career, Markey became familiar with the range of challenges and limitations all too common within rural schools, as well as the resolve often found in these communities in times of need. So, she was overjoyed when district faculty and staff also rose to meet the needs of its students in a variety of new ways, and that community members themselves poured out to support and show encouragement for all the school has instituted.

Markey remarks that West Central had a relatively “smooth” transition into the new realities of digital learning, social distancing, and community outreach. She expresses both excitement and pride in discovering that they were “…really more prepared to go this route than we thought before,” and over the course of just a few days, teachers and staff were able to provide what has proven to be vital services for their students and hometowns.

“This has definitely been an ‘accept things as we go’ kind of situation.”

Digital Transition

Like schools all over the country, classrooms and lesson plans at West Central went digital. However, many rural districts across the U.S. often do not have the infrastructure, funding, or training to make this necessary change. Despite facing similar challenges, Superintendent Markey proudly explained how West Central had for a number of years fought to provide “one-to-one” services for students, offering them personal, school-issued laptops from grade school until graduation. An integral part of this strategy was to acclimate students to Google Classroom, Khan Academy, and similar educational websites to enrich in-class experiences. Now, as Markey details, this preemptive move gives West Central a “leg-up” in the current situation.

According to West Central 4th Grade teacher, Amy Wolf, “this has definitely been an ‘accept things as we go’ kind of situation.”

Wolf has been a member of the West Central team for 13 years, and over the course of her time at the school she has come to find that the “…district is blessed with many different personalities and teaching styles, along with incredible administration and technology. As a school, we’ve come to depend on those differences as we adapt to this new normal.”

Amy Wolf, 4th grade teacher at West Central

Describing this transition to the new digital format, Wolf feels they have “…gone through phases [or] steps with accepting this situation. As I watched the news…I started thinking about maybe needing to buy some extra Clorox wipes for more frequent wiping down of desks, door knobs, etc.…Looking back, I guess it was kind of nice to be able to be that naïve! About a week prior to the closings, I wondered if we might need to have some things in place for maybe a week or two, so I started thinking about some very broad range planning and how I could take what I already had planned and adapt those plans to a remote learning situation.”

Amidst all the changes going on in the students’ daily lives, Wolf explains that “I’ve tried to keep as many of our regular daily routines in place as possible because I feel like those routines bring the students feelings of comfort…”

And along with an assortment of educational websites for math, science, and reading, Wolf says that they have also “tried to incorporate virtual field trips into some of our days, and we’ve tried to think outside the box on how to assess those experiences.” In all, her “tactic has been to try to integrate the things we do on a routine basis into the unfamiliar remote learning process to make this change easier for all of us.”

And while teaching virtually can never fully make up for an in-class experience, Wolf shares that “the students have been the saving grace for me personally throughout all of this. I am beyond proud of each and every one of my students and their families! It’s not the ideal situation, but together we’re trying to make the most of it!”

“We have had Zoom meetings as a class, and I can see in their eyes how comforting these times together as a class are for them. I have to fight back tears when I see them!”

Challenges Remain

Yet not everyone has transitioned as smoothly, and important challenges remain for some teachers and their students. Most notably, Superintendent Markey reveals, kindergarten through 2nd grade classes and the district’s special education and educational assistance programs are not set up to operate digitally like other grade levels. Additionally, parts of Henderson County, like many rural communities, have insufficient internet infrastructure to support the full range of virtual classwork, or simply do not have access to the internet at all.

But this added challenge has not stopped teachers, like Julie Ricketts, from meeting the challenges. Having taught at the school in various roles for 19 years, Ricketts is a West Central veteran and has actually worked at the school since before the district was consolidated in 2005.

While Ricketts taught early elementary in the past, she has since become one of West Central’s three “Title One” teachers, a program which offers learning assistance to early elementary students.

Amy Wolf's "work-from-home" set-up

Even on a typical day, Ricketts recalls that “…to do our jobs you have to be extremely flexible because you can start the day with a plan and then due to the many needs of our students and staff the day can do a complete 360 and you either end up spending a lot of time with one student who needs some emotional assistance or you could become a sub for a class.”

Now with the demands to offer her services to a range of students across different grades and with widely differing home situations, Ricketts remarks that “with any change, we have had our difficulties…there has been a definite learning curve to it all.”

But she has found success in the new rhythm of staying-at-home, “…I have assisted 1st and 4th grade the most with their curriculums. 1st grade has been doing packets, so the students having internet access [have] not been as big of a concern. 4th grade on the other hand [has been] trying to do most of their work using Google Classroom and it has worked pretty well.”

While Ricketts, Superintendent Markey, and their colleagues have overcome the immediate challenges by utilizing work packets and special offers from local internet service providers to extend coverage to students, the absence of the classroom community remains the hardest felt challenge of them all.

The hardship was evidenced by Mrs. Wolf when she spoke about teaching from a distance, “We have had Zoom meetings as a class, and I can see in their eyes how comforting these times together as a class are for them. I have to fight back tears when I see them, and I know that’s the case with all of the other staff as well!”

“Free and reduced lunches are about 55% of our student population, so this is a way for those students to have a way through this time…and it offers [parents] a little peace knowing that they have this for their kids”

Meal Delivery

Along with the innovative methods West Central teachers are implementing for student education, staff at the school have also stepped up in a big way to serve the community at large through offering meals for students.

Aside from providing education, many rural students and their families are deeply reliant upon public schools as a distributor of critical food resources throughout most of the year. With schools planning to remain closed for the remainder of this school year, this has put an unexpected and unsustainable economic burden on families already at risk.

Answering the call of the Illinois State Board of Education to ensure that families in need are not cut off from these crucial resources, Superintendent Markey acted quickly with her food and transportation staff to organize a system of preparing and delivering meals across the county.

Markey notes how “free and reduced lunches are about 55% of our student population, so this is a way for those students to have a way through this time…and it offers [parents] a little peace knowing that they have this for their kids.”

She ensures that all students, regardless of their situation, are eligible to receive these meals and can begin receiving them after opting into the program online or with a phone call to the district office. Once registered, students are able to pick up three days’ worth of meals, twice a week at nine different locations in various towns across the county.

Since launching meal services the same week schools were shuttered, Markey says how the “number of people who’ve signed-up has increased every day.” She estimates that “about 250 kids were doing [the program],” amounting to roughly 1600 meals provided every pick-up day.

Hoping to support student mental and emotional wellness through this program as well, Markey explains how she and her staff “printed out positive notes as a little pick-me-up for students to receive when opening their meals.” In a previous meal run, West Central staff and drivers also adorned school buses used for delivering meals with small paper hearts to keep students optimistic and comforted.

In response to using the school infrastructure to provide for students and their families in more ways than education alone, Markey remarks how “people that are participating [in the program] have had nothing but positive comments.”

“One thing I know for sure is that people from rural communities are some of the most ‘make do’, hardworking, and loyal people in the world!”

In This Together: Supporting the West Central Family from a Distance

While it may seem that West Central is an exceptional case with how it has adapted to the new normal and overcome immediate challenges, both Ricketts and Wolf, as well as Superintendent Markey, each acknowledge that the key to the success of the district’s actions is in no small part due to the distinct sense of family--- which unites teachers, students, and their communities—an advantage which strengthens and unifies many rural schools toward a common and collective purpose.

In Superintendent Markey’s eyes, all public schools during this crisis, West Central included, have a duty to serve their area beyond education alone. While as a school, teachers and staff at West Central remain concerned with providing education, Markey maintains that they all were primarily committed to the safety and health of their students and communities. She explains that “now is a time for loving each other and doing all one can to help our neighbors and hometowns.”

Mrs. Ricketts agrees, “I think that the impact the school is having on the community is amazing...I have seen many heartwarming comments and gratitude on social media to our teachers and administrators.” She recalls how on April 8th, “…the football lights were turned on at the field and many staff members came and parked their cars in the parking lot and students and families were able to drive through the parking lot and we waved and honked our horns. It was one more way to show we were in this together.”

And for Mrs. Wolf too, at the school she says how “everyone has pulled together and is sharing ideas, letting each other know what’s working, what maybe could be improved.”

For Henderson County, Wolf feels “like it has pulled our community together even more than before. The parents are working so hard to do what needs to be done for their children’s education! They amaze me with how they go above and beyond in finding extra things to do that go hand in hand with what we are teaching online…Beyond education, people are so willing to do whatever it takes to help their neighbors. I see and hear more people showing their appreciation and extending heartfelt gestures…One thing I know for sure is that people from rural communities are some of the most ‘make do’, hardworking, and loyal people in the world!”

“People are resilient. Children are resilient… I see living and raising families in our rural community as a great strength! We will get through this and come out better for having experienced it!”

Key Takeaways

While adjusting to the new requirements of life under quarantine have not been easy, students, teachers, and school-families across our rural communities have remained persistent in their fight to find the “new normal” and succeed despite the debilitating mix of challenges, both new and old, which they currently face.

For West Central CUSD, the united efforts of the school, students, and towns have proven to all involved what we’ve believed all along: that local schools are a crucial source of vitality and action in rural communities. In Henderson County, the COVID experience has brought its fair share of fear and anxiety, but so too has this novel crisis brought inspiration.

Superintendent Paula Markey expresses deep gratitude when reflecting on all that is going on at West Central:

“We just step up and help out without worrying about what we’re going to get out of it. This [experience] has just reinforced that. I can’t say how proud I am of our district. Our mission statement is ‘providing opportunity and expecting excellence.’ We are continuing to provide opportunity for our students and the staff have stepped up and stayed positive.”

Julie Ricketts also “can’t be more thankful and feel more blessed to work with the educators” in her district. Looking forward to the post-COVID future, Ricketts remains optimistic:

“I think when this is all said and done and we can get back to some normalcy there will be a new found gratitude for each other and these wonderful students…This has all been surreal, but in the end I believe a lot of great things are going to come from it…I have to believe that!”

And until we enjoy life again after the crisis, Amy Wolf reminds us that “people are resilient. Children are resilient… I see living and raising families in our rural community as a great strength! We will get through this and come out better for having experienced it!”

Article written by John Glasgow, RSC Research Assistant in Monmouth, IL.

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