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By David Little
  • Department of Global Development
  • Global Development
As summer wanes and classrooms get ready to welcome back students as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, New York’s rural schools face a daunting task — how to provide essential instruction while protecting personal and community health, all with dwindling resources.

Government at both the state and federal levels recognized early in the pandemic that our schools were the primary and often only delivery system in place to support not only the education of children, but the health and welfare of the entire community.  Nowhere is that more true than the 320 school districts in New York that are rural, which are nearly half of the state’s 667 districts. Sadly, that hasn’t meant that government has provided the means to carry out their mission, or even governmental directives.

New York State’s immediate response to the financial impact of the crisis was to cut spending, including aid to financially challenged rural schools. While federal stimulus money temporarily made up the difference, the end result was that schools received no more money than last year. This in itself forces schools to cut programs and services, given that (with or without state help) their costs increase from one year to the next. As of this writing, Congress hasn’t agreed on additional aid to states or schools, resulting in New York State cutting the first of its aid payments to schools by 20%, with plans to continue that practice throughout the year if no additional help is forthcoming.

While the state convened both a “Reimagining Education Task Force” and a “Reopening Schools Task Force,” their work has not resulted in either structural, regulatory flexibility or financial assistance to date. In fact, the only direction from Albany so far has been that schools make their own plans and talk with their communities about how to implement them. Those plans needed to be compliant with health guidelines, but no funding was provided to carry out the required changes. As a result, masks, plexiglass partitions, additional staff needed to transport and educate students in small groups, more extensive disinfection, devices needed for remote instruction and a host of other needed items all came at the expense of current educational programs and services.

Our rural schools traditionally struggle to secure needed staff, including teachers. Suburban and even urban school districts simply pay more. The wage gap is a tremendous obstacle to even the most dedicated, but student-debt ridden potential rural teacher.

Now, our rural schools face the prospect of massive layoffs, making the future likelihood of attracting and retaining staff almost an impossibility.  The loss of school employees is particularly devastating in our rural communities, where the school is almost always the largest and most stable employer. 

As if all of this weren’t enough, our schools are simply unable to legitimately plan for the coming months of instruction.

Instructional plans for the year run the gamut of remote learning, in person instruction and a blended approach where each student comes to the school for a couple of days per week. Understanding that not every home situation is conducive to full time instruction and knowing that seeing a child regularly often alerts school staff to their needs, schools have often attempted (particularly with younger children) to retain some “face to face” time in their plans.

The anxiety of not knowing how any of this will transpire in practice obviously takes a toll on school staff, students and parents alike. Remote or in person scheduling has implications for working parents. Often the need to transport students to sites where broadband internet access is available becomes a regular part of the family’s day. Even when it’s available in the home, competition for devices and access occurs not only between siblings, but between children and parents also working from home. All of these pressures have led many rural school districts to attempt in person learning for as many students as possible. What are the odds that they can pull it off?

That’s anyone’s guess. But rural districts, more than others, face the added dilemma of money. Our rural schools simply rely on state aid far more than their suburban counterparts, given the state’s reliance on local property taxes to fund public education. So far the state has made their cuts across the board, meaning that they simply calculate how much money your school district was supposed to receive and cuts it by 20%. This is without question the most in-artful method, as a wealthy community receiving a small amount of aid is able to move on comparatively unscathed, while most rural communities would be hard pressed to continue providing even the most scaled down version of the curriculum.

Why would the state choose such a “broad brush” approach?  For the same reason that John Dillinger said he robbed banks; that’s where the money is. Most state aid goes to fiscally strapped school districts. Taking smaller amounts from wealthier districts is both politically risky and financially laborious. The ultimate question, however, is how this approach affects the state’s constitutional requirement to provide each child with a public education. After all, constitutional rights aren’t suspended just because you’re short on cash. Upholding those rights, though, means requiring the state to prioritize funding reductions in the thousands of programs that are not constitutionally required. So far, it has not undertaken that kind of assessment, or the possibility of raising revenue through either additional taxation or borrowing.

Many school districts are privately discussing contingency plans, should funding not be forthcoming. If the pandemic does not subside soon, going fully to remote instruction will be more affordable and at the least, provide a semblance of regular, sustained instruction. But there’s a big catch: the potential for large numbers of layoffs, increasing unemployment costs and further straining the economy of each affected community.

Amid all of the uncertainty and harrowing possibilities, rural school leaders have remained steadfast in their planning, coordination and communication. They continue to prove their resourcefulness and creativity under pressure. Will the state see the value of innovation and (like all of its neighbors) approve a regional high school model for rural areas?  Will it expand digital learning opportunities?  Will it develop the broadband internet access so badly needed by (not just students but) rural businesses?

While the questions far outnumber the answers at this point, what is certain is that rural schools are proven masters at accomplishing what most would say can’t be done. If we are truly at a fulcrum of history, rural schools will no doubt prove yet again that they are ready and capable of making the most of the situation, for the benefit of their children. 

David Little is executive director of the Rural Schools Association and serves as director of the Rural Schools Program in Cornell University’s Department of Global Development.

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