What is the weight of a pandemic on a rural education?
By Clayton Steward
While the storm that is COVID-19 rages in hotspot areas, rural parts of the country sit as small havens, untouched by the virus. Community leaders are faced with the challenge of deciding to take early action to stifle any possibilities of cases in their areas, or maximize the time left of normalcy before a state mandated stay at home order was likely to be imposed. In the case of Deborah Day, superintendent of Davis R-XII Elementary school in rural West-Central Missouri, this decision largely falls on her shoulders. In areas like the one Davis R-XII Elementary School sits, the rural school serves as the heart of the community; pumping the community with education for its children, food for its vulnerable members and a sense of togetherness in an area where neighbors are often miles apart.
Spring brings a certain magic back to the small campus of Davis R-XII. Students prepare for the annual spring choir concert, outdoor recess becomes more and more enjoyable as the temperatures go up, and yes, the countdown to summer vacation inches by each passing day. There is a certain eerie and unsettling feeling that comes with seeing an elementary school that is so full of life during late March and early April sit empty, depleted of learning and laughter. Empty classrooms. Deserted hallways. Swings sitting silent.
In an exclusive phone interview with Mrs. Day, it was clear that the decision made was one that was extremely challenging but was made with the health of the staff and students in mind. The thought process was based around keeping the Davis R-XII community healthy, but the consideration of the ability to continue to provide a good education was included. Davis R-XII is well known to be a top provider for elementary education in the area, as well as among the entire state of Missouri.
The way that Mrs. Day put it during the interview was so well said. She compared the decision to something that is all too familiar to midwestern school administrators, saying the decision was “like a snow day decision, times 100. You just never know.” This comment comes from a seasoned vet in terms of making hard decisions. Serving as a principal for 15 years at a small private Catholic school and then being at Davis R-XII since 2007, there have been many snow day decisions, but nothing that has compared to this.
The decision made happened in a school board meeting where members were half in-person and half via zoom. On March 26th, the decision to go to distanced learning for the remainder of the semester was made. Refer to the timeline below to see the events leading up to and following this decision. The main discussions within this meeting had to do with the same considerations Mrs. Day was weighing, finding the balance between safety and a continued education.
Through this pandemic, the value of a school to a community has been magnified. The services provided by Davis R-XII, such as, providing food, materials, devices, and most importantly, support from teachers to students, has been a growing and learning process Mrs. Day says. Providing food to the community shifted to meet people’s needs and make the most logistical sense for a rural community. At first the school was providing a sack lunch and breakfast, but that wasn’t the best fit. The decision to transition to allowing families pick up care packages with eggs, pasta, fresh fruit, and other food in a box system allowed for easier accessibility and less amounts of face to face contact.
Mrs. Day praised the teachers for their ability to quickly adapt to be able to continue to provide a quality education to their students during distanced learning. The teachers encourage their students to continue to practice the skills that will make them successful. The most important adaptation to this new learning style is the teacher’s ability to have one-on-one communication to best support their students. The perk of a rural school district like this one is that the student teacher ratio is often much smaller than other districts, allowing teachers to tailor to each student’s needs. Mrs. Day also said that the teachers had done a great job to find apps and other programs that would be very beneficial, especially since Davis R-XII is able to provide Kindle’s to the younger students.
Miss. Jennifer Henry, 5thand 6thgrade teacher at Davis R-XII said she misses “interacting with my students and the staff on a daily basis” but went on to say how supported she felt from the other teachers and administration. She said that they are “a support system during this unusual and unprecedented time.”
The rural nature of the school district has its pros and cons. The ability to access the internet is subjected to many factors. The geographic location of the school district puts many families into the unconnected side of the “Digital Gap”, the term that describes the disparity among people to have access to the internet. The school district did its best to try and find viable options to provide hotspots to the community. The upside to country living is that neighbors are generally spread apart great distances, opposed to suburban or urban neighborhoods.
I can personally say that I know the decisions made and the services provided since that decision were made with the students at the very forefront of everyone’s mind. I myself went to Davis R-XII from Kindergarten thru 8thgrade. I attest my solid foundation of education and my love of learning to this school district. This school truly is the heart of my rural, agriculturally based community.
In the end, Mrs. Day said in the interview she still felt that concern to whether or not they made the right decision. The impact that Henry county and the entire state of Missouri has felt has been one that shows the right decision was made. Teacher aid, Sue Steward, said “I can’t wait for the halls and classrooms to be filled with students again.” When the Davis R-XII community can once again all gather to celebrate the Kindergarten and 8thgrade graduates of 2020, I hope everyone, and especially Mrs. Day will be able to smile, enjoying time with a healthy, and once again happy, community.