This story about rural education was produced as part of the series Critical Condition: The Students the Pandemic Hit Hardest, reported by HuffPost and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Terri Johnson willed her body not to show signs of impatience. She had been sitting in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Greenville, Mississippi, for more than an hour, so her oldest child, Kentiona, could connect to the building’s Wi-Fi, something they didn’t have at home. Johnson didn’t want her daughter to feel rushed.
Kentiona, 16, was in the passenger seat using the car’s dashboard as a makeshift desk. Her high school had recently closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic and shifted to distance learning. Kentiona’s persuasive essay for her English class had brought them to the McDonald’s on that third Friday in March. Her cellphone’s data plan — the only way she could access the internet at home — wasn’t up to the task. She looked up topics on the phone, occasionally consulting the textbook in her lap. Her mom had promised her as much time as she needed, but she figured that could only last for so long with her three younger siblings — Jakayla, 12, Quinteria, 14, and Amareon, 10 — in the back seat. The family bonding session was cramped and involuntary, and she didn’t want to prolong it. She jotted down her notes quickly.
Moving back to the Mississippi Delta was supposed to be a fresh start for Johnson. She had tried her luck in Houston for six years, before returning to her hometown when money grew tight. She was making ends meet by working as a cashier at a local gas station, until an injury took her off the job.
Now, the strategies she had pieced together to survive were being whittled away. Within days, the local job center that had allowed Johnson’s children to use its computers for homework assignments was open only to jobseekers with appointments. Johnson had planned to join those ranks, until she received word from a family member that because of the virus, kids wouldn’t return to school after spring break.
Her only viable option for child care was to rely on her eldest daughter. But asking Kentiona to look after her younger siblings — and maintain her studies — seemed like too much. Johnson also didn’t want her children to go through the next two months with no educational tools beyond the worksheets she’d picked up from the Greenville Public School District and limited access to online materials through Kentiona’s phone, shared among the four of them.
Taking a new job would have helped her get back on her feet, but she decided her kids would keep up better if she was there to help homeschool them herself. Greenville schools have some of the highest school dropout rates in the state, and Johnson also viewed staying at home as necessary to defend her children’s chances of living an easier life.
“I do what I can, whenever I can, for my children,” she said.
In the rural Deep South, Black residents born into poverty have long struggled to escape it. Schools here are among the most ill-resourced in the nation, well-paying jobs are few and necessities like Wi-Fi, public transportation and medical insurance are often out of reach. In Washington County, where Johnson lives, 34% of families live below the poverty line. More than half of children in the county between the ages of 5 to 17 live in poverty. As the economic and health crisis caused by the coronavirus spreads across the region, advocates and scholars fear it will plunge families deeper into poverty and inflame existing racial and geographic inequities, with dire consequences for a generation of children.
School closures have already harmed the most vulnerable. While some schools around the country have attempted instruction that approximates what kids would receive in a physical classroom, such efforts are less likely to happen in rural areas: One analysis of 477 school districts estimated that only 27% of rural school districts required direct instruction through recorded lessons, real-time teaching or similar methods. Widespread lack of broadband access complicates learning.
Meanwhile, education is just one role schools fill. Nearly 78% of counties with the highest food insecurity rates for children are rural, with some of the most extreme outliers located in the Deep South. In Mississippi and across the region, thousands of families like Johnson’s count on free meals offered by schools. Yet even this lifeline is fragile. Some meal distribution sites have had to shut down when a staff member becomes sick.
And not everyone, of course, can get to schools to pick up meals in a region where public transport is scant. “Unlike urban communities, you can’t just walk around the corner to the school,” said Sheneka Williams, a professor at Michigan State University who studies rural education.
With families so sensitive to any disruption, the pandemic risks producing knock-on effects for children that could continue in the months and, even, years ahead, experts say. Yet Williams also sees resilience in the way rural schools and families are pulling together, even though, she said, they have “operated in lack” for so long. Rural schools often operate as the “community connector,” a role that’s become even more outsized as the families they serve endure economic hardship, she said. Just because a town is small doesn’t mean everyone knows each other; schools in these areas often function as a needed hub for community events where educators and families bond. These relationships are proving crucial now in organizing and spreading word of resources that are available to families.
But this resilience doesn’t make families invincible.
Rural Americans are often older and sicker than their urban counterparts and they live shorter lives. If there’s an emergency, rural residents already have to travel farther for care; hospital closures might greatly increase the distances they must travel. Since 2010, five rural hospitals have closed in Mississippi alone, and almost half of the state’s rural hospitals are at risk of closing. Health care may be financially unavailable for many; few Deep South states have expanded Medicaid insurance to the working poor. Black Southerners, who already suffer from some of the worst health outcomes in the country, have contracted and died from the virus at a disproportionately higher rate.
Williams argues the true trauma of the novel coronavirus pandemic won’t lie with missed learning time, but with what has happened to children who have watched loved ones struggle to recover from the virus or succumb to it. “Without access to quality health care,” she said, “entire rural communities can be lost to this pandemic and other diseases.”
‘We Can’t Hug You’
It didn’t take much for fourth-grade teacher LeKesha Perry, who taught Johnson’s son, Amareon, to figure out when a student was struggling to write a paragraph. Gaining enough trust so students would share what was really bothering them on a tough day was another matter.
She’d created a Facebook group at the start of the school year for families of the children she taught. Now, with schools closing, instead of posting about how much she looked forward to seeing her students after spring break, she was trying to figure out which students needed paper packets of schoolwork delivered to their homes. Students with the internet at home could access online learning activities offered by the district or participate in virtual classrooms, while packets were provided for children without the ability to log on. She looked at her notes on each student and tried to address their individual strengths and weaknesses while arranging the packets.
While preparing for her second day of deliveries, Perry heard rumors that two teachers in another county had contracted the virus while making similar visits. On the way to an affordable housing complex in town, she told herself this would be her last run. She was wrapping up when a grandmother called out to her from the steps of the building. Her grandson wasn’t in Perry’s class, the woman said, but he needed an instructional packet and she didn’t have a car to pick one up. Perry walked up the stairs, looked at the boy from a safe distance of a few feet and told him she’d return the next day with a packet.
On the way back to her car, she saw a group of her students. They started running to her — before she made them stop. Her students had been out of school for almost half a month at that point and had little certainty of when they’d go back. “We still love you, but I can’t touch you,” she told them.
Perry couldn’t shake what was going on. “If this is what I feel, what are they feeling?” she asked herself on the drive home, close to tears. “What is going to happen to our children?”
Unemployment Rate Doubles
By early April, Washington County reported two deaths from the coronavirus. Johnson tried to keep her focus on the things she could control. But her determination couldn’t overcome every problem. Sometimes, Kentiona got stuck on small details from her chemistry class. Deciphering the periodic table of elements seemed easier when her teacher explained it in person.
“The hands-on work isn’t as good as the teacher,” Kentiona said.
She admitted it would have been nice to have been able to be in her room with a laptop to do schoolwork and talk to her teacher, but seemed reluctant to complain. Without a computer at home, she’d had to write her persuasive essay by hand, and give it to her mother to drop off at her school.
Some parts of life have remained normal, Johnson said. Kentiona, whom she calls “very bright,” still studies with earbuds plugged in, listening to music while she reads each page. Johnson was bemused by her daughter’s multitasking.
“I don’t understand, she sings and everything,” Johnson said.
Kentiona goes back and forth between wanting to be a lawyer or a child psychologist. Johnson laughs that she also wanted to work with children when she was around her daughter’s age. But life got in the way of her dreams. Johnson dropped out of high school at 17, soon after learning she was pregnant with Kentiona. She wants more for her daughter than daydreams.
“I didn’t really have anyone to push me,” she said.
She has “what-if” thoughts about what might have happened if she’d kept going.
By the end of April, before Johnson even had a chance to look for work, the county’s unemployment rate had doubled, to 15.6%. The state had increased the food stamp benefits she received for the month, which helped her stretch groceries when school meals couldn’t tide the family over. She still couldn’t imagine leaving her children during the day, but now there was a question of what jobs would be available when she was ready.
But, like her daughter, Johnson tended to keep her problems to herself. That wasn’t hard to do. Since moving back, she’d kept her social circle small and been bit of a “loner,” as she put it.
“We don’t mumble or complain,” she said.
But, she acknowledged of life lately, “It’s slow. It has been slow.”
The Digital Divide
A month into the school closures, Amareon and Jakayla were sitting at the family’s dining room table concentrating on their work. Amareon was filling out a multiplication sheet, while Jakayla took her turn with the phone. Some days, the device’s download speed seemed to function at a crawl. Johnson’s kids were growing impatient waiting for a chance to use her phone. They could do a few assignments online each, but not the full curriculum. On the days they finished by lunch, Johnson would come up with multiplication and spelling games to keep them busy.
It would be another month before Mississippi lawmakers and the state superintendent of education discussed the possibility of using a federal emergency relief package to purchase digital devices and hotspots for students. As of early June, the education department was still working to secure funds for that initiative. Almost 40% of households in Washington County don’t have broadband service at home. That figure spikes to more than 60% for adults like Johnson who lack a high school degree.
North Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said the digital divide has hampered the ability of families to navigate the crisis. Unemployed parents have a harder time searching for work when they can’t access online listings. Their children have a harder time keeping up with their peers who can watch online tutorials of complicated math problems or easily video chat with a teacher. Their families can’t videoconference with physicians about health concerns.
“Americans and Mississippians and anyone with common sense in the year 2020 understands broadband is as important to modern life as electricity is,” Presley said.
Perry, Amareon’s teacher, had started meeting via Zoom with some students who needed help. But she feared more than half of her students didn’t have access to reliable internet. Some would log on for as little as 10 minutes per day because that’s all their families’ mobile data plans seemed to be able to handle.
The district uses a program called SchoolStatus to post messages for families. Perry created an email address for her students’ accounts and shared instructions through the app on how parents could access them. By the second week of the school closures, she’d sent out a survey to each family asking about their internet access. No response at all was an answer in itself.
Despite his limited access to the internet, Amareon managed to log in for assignments for weeks. Perry FaceTimed him one day for almost 30 minutes, trying to keep both of their spirits up.
Then Amareon went silent.
Three weeks passed without her hearing anything at all.
Johnson was dealing with a crisis of her own. Her cellphone had broken. Almost a month passed before she could purchase a new one, effectively ending her younger children’s abilities to attempt some lessons online.
Her kids were eager to return to school. Sharing their mom’s phone was cumbersome, but they’d grown accustomed to it, and now that routine had been upended.
The next few weeks were trying, but Johnson said her family managed to have good moments. Her children surprised her with a barbecue cookout for Mother’s Day. Though it meant taking a risk, a friend agreed to let Johnson’s kids come over one day and use her Wi-Fi. After Johnson bought a new phone, she received a call from a local fast food chain about possible work as a cook and cashier during the summer. Even though the district was offering summer packets of schoolwork, Johnson didn’t think she could afford to spend the next few months trying to homeschool. She felt it might be time to return to work.
On the morning of May 15, the patience she’d managed that day in the McDonald’s parking lot in March and the weeks that followed had naturally started to taper off. The last of her children’s learning packets had to be turned in that afternoon and the kids were still trying to complete them.
The district had decided to average student’s final grades from the first three terms of the year. Students who completed half of their packets could receive up to 10 points, enough to bump up a full letter grade on their semester report card. Students who turned in less would receive no more than 5 points. Johnson didn’t know what would happen after that, but from her living room she called out to her children: “Do your work.”
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