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  • Department of Global Development
  • Global Development

New York state’s early response to the COVID-19 crisis contained a daunting directive to its public schools: Shut down now.

On March 16, the state ordered schools to switch immediately from classroom instruction to remote teaching delivered electronically to students’ homes. Schools were told to continue to provide lunches for students, no matter where they lived. Finally, schools were told to provide daycare for the children of all healthcare workers on the front lines of fighting the pandemic.

David Little Headshot
David Little

For rural schools, the challenges were particularly daunting. In an ever-evolving environment — with few community partners and even fewer financial resources compared to counterparts in more populated areas — rural schools were far from exempted from the state’s demand. Indeed, in many communities they were and are the only hope of addressing community-wide problems.

To comply with the school closure mandate, New York state’s rural schools had to overcome significant logistical challenges. Unlike their urban and suburban counterparts, rural students are located across vast stretches of land and often in remote locations. They frequently lack sufficient internet access to receive regular instruction electronically. To meet the needs of the student, multiple meals would need to be prepared and provided throughout those broad geographic regions. Staff would need to be hired or reassigned to provide daycare, developing daily activities on a moment’s notice.

And people in rural communities, where schools are often the focal point, looked to their schools to lead during this unprecedented crisis.

The result? Rural schools have delivered, and then some. 

Despite the loss of staff and students to their homes, lessons have in fact continued. Teachers learned practically overnight how to teach online. They prepared packets of written materials for those students without internet service and began everything from Facebook counseling and individualized instruction to Zoom class meetings. Subjects from science to physical education are proceeding unabated, bringing students, families and communities together virtually, if not physically. 

Recognizing the emotional impact of isolation on children and adults alike, New York’s rural teachers have gone above and beyond the call to provide tension-breaking messages of hope and reassurance. Some have hosted parades past student homes, where teachers and administrators have driven by playing music and shouting out encouragement in cars filled with pets and festooned with signs. In some communities the teachers have been joined by police and fire vehicles and ambulances. 

Cafeteria staff have turned into take-out specialists, preparing and packaging multiple meals for regular delivery, often driven by the school’s bus drivers. Aides, no longer able to work side-by-side with teachers, have been thrusted into work as daycare providers. These essential parts of the school environment have shown that teachers aren’t the only classroom professionals with creativity and the ability to innovate seemingly on a whim — or the courage to continue working in a group setting. 

All of this has occurred without knowing how long the crisis will last, how long staff can be retained or where the extra needed resources will come from. The State Education Department has been diligent in finding answers to questions related to state testing and others, as well as interpreting regulations in light of the state’s current circumstances. Nonetheless, questions remain, particularly for our high school seniors.  Everything from what will be required for graduation and college entry to whether there will be a senior prom remain unanswered.  

When the pandemic finally passes the list of challenges remaining for rural schools will be both numerous and profound. As homeschool groups have by necessity sprung up as parents become instant teachers, will the rate of homeschooling exacerbate the already declining enrollment in rural schools?  Will the state realize the impact of the disparity in the provision of broadband internet and focus on providing it to rural students?  Will it loosen the many restrictions on digital learning in the state? 

Then there are the financial implications. At present, the state is without revenue as the economy has shut down to maintain social distancing. Next year’s state budget is subject to periodic reductions in state aid to schools if sufficient revenues don’t arrive.  What will that mean to fiscally challenged rural schools that already struggle to meet even the state’s minimum curricular standards? Will the state respond by allowing regional high schools — the two-generation old (and successful) model of all of our neighboring states? Will it require small and struggling schools to merge, despite the often great distances involved? 

Time will tell, but for now there is one aspect of this crisis that has not been a surprise: that rural schools have shown themselves to be resilient, resourceful and ready to lead their communities. 

David A. Little is executive director of the Rural Schools Association

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