HOLTON — It was a little over a month into the school year that Holton Unified School District 336 superintendent Bob Davies realized the district was fighting a losing battle.
The battle wasn’t against COVID-19, though, at least not directly.
Like most other rural districts, USD 336 took a shot at the beginning of the school year and opened with in-person classes, with the hopes that social distancing, mask and hygiene policies could stave off the virus in their classrooms, and more than a quarter into the school year, this was Davies’ conclusion: the precautions were working.
Since returning to school in late August, the district — which normally counts about 1,160 students but was down 80 this year from families who looked for other school options — had handily dealt with the virus in its schools, and few, if any, cases could be traced to COVID-19 spread in the district’s classrooms.
But the precautions could only go so far when students and staff leave their buildings every day at 3 p.m., and students and staff have inevitably caught the virus or been placed under quarantine protocols. As the elementary school started to find itself short on teachers, school leaders were splitting students from absent teachers’ classrooms into sections of the same grades — a counterintuitive measure, given the need to keep class sizes small, but a necessary one to "keep the wheels on the bus going round and round," Davies said.
That was a short-term fix, though, and when the numbers of teachers on quarantine and classroom sizes kept climbing, Davies was forced on Oct. 9 to preemptively close the elementary school for in-person learning for a week, before teacher absences made the decision for him.
As Kansas’ rural districts find some success in handling the virus in their schools, they’re finding themselves disproportionately affected by the consequences of their COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
Notably, districts are finding a challenge in convincing their communities to trust in the same COVID-19 protocols that have worked in schools but have been difficult to enforce outside of school buildings, school leaders across the state said.
Many of the issues rural districts face are the "same ones with a million variations" that their larger counterparts have faced during the pandemic, said Kansas State Board of Education member Jean Clifford, from Garden City. Clifford represents District 5 — which encompasses more than 80 districts in the sparsely populated western third of the state.
The key difference is that smaller districts often don’t have the same resources or staffing to tackle those issues, she said. Compound those issues with strong politicization on COVID-19 precautions and parents pushed to their wits’ ends, and districts are finding it difficult to please everyone in their communities.
"The school districts are facing a lot of strong and opposing public opinion on almost every issue," she said. "You’ll have communities or parents who have one strong view on masking, then you’ll have the opposite view in the same school or district. It’s just impossible to meet everyone’s desire on that."
Jerry Johnson, an educational leadership professor at Kansas State University who has extensively researched and led national organizations on rural education, said the pandemic has only highlighted things like staffing shortages, health disparities and lack of reliable broadband access that rural districts had always faced.
"A lot of things stayed hidden or under the radar until something like this happened," he said. "When you’re coping with and responding to something this challenging, those inequities come to light, or they’re made much more apparent."
Staff shortages, quarantines
In the absence of statewide data for COVID-19 spread in Kansas schools, school leaders who spoke with The Topeka Capital-Journal said that, to their knowledge, COVID-19 has rarely spread in schools, with only a handful of districts having seen significant classroom spread. National research corroborates that, and in Shawnee County, home to about 30,000 students and 4,300 staff, the county health officer said that the county has yet to see a single case of COVID-19 from classroom transmission.
The biggest disruption to school this year hasn’t been COVID-19 itself, but the virus’ ripple effects and the quarantines it has caused in smaller districts.
In many cases, schools are closing in districts like Holton USD 336 and Silver Lake USD 372, where quarantines wiped out the elementary school’s custodial staff just days into the semester, because school officials don’t feel confident in their ability to safely operate with that many fewer adults.
Substitute teacher shortages have also hampered districts’ abilities to swap people in when teachers get sent to isolate or quarantine. Substitutes and other support staff tend to skew older, superintendents said, and districts have been left in a crunch to fill those roles on short notice.
In Holton, Davies said it’s not just quarantines either — school staff still call in absences for typical reasons like the common flu and other, nontypical reasons like poison ivy.
Some rural districts naturally have smaller class sizes because they are in smaller communities and therefore are better able to spread students out. An unexpected advantage of population decline in some rural communities is that buildings originally built for larger class sizes now see smaller student populations as their communities have shrunk.
When Colby USD 315 started the school year, they did so as their county, Thomas County in northwest Kansas, was beginning to see its first surge in COVID-19 cases. Still, at the community’s urging, the district opened for in-person learning, superintendent Katina Brenn said, and that had been largely successful.
But then isolated cases started popping up around the district, which numbers about 950 students, and the quarantines started piling up. In just one week, three students who had tested positive resulted in about 230 quarantines for other students.
What one must understand about rural schools, Brenn said, is that their students are much more likely to be involved in multiple extracurriculars and sports, and given the difficulty in identifying close contacts in those activities, multiple teams are typically sent to quarantine whenever a student on those teams is confirmed as a positive case.
"It spikes very fast, and that’s why you see those large numbers in districts that aren’t able to do modified quarantines or able to space out properly," Brenn said.
In late September, Colby USD 315 moved to start using modified quarantine procedures, which allow students identified as close contacts to still attend school following much more aggressive health precautions. For starters, those students have to take separate buses to school, and while in the building, they are isolated from their non-close contact peers, with separate classrooms, lunch hours and even bathrooms.
To be eligible for modified quarantine, students must not be showing symptoms, live in a household with a confirmed case of COVID-19 or be waiting for results on a virus test. Even though they’re still allowed to attend school, students are still to quarantine at their homes outside of school hours.
So far, the modified quarantines have worked, Brenn said, and positive student cases are now resulting in just four or five quarantines.
"You can quarantine them from coming to school, but in a small district, these kids are together (outside of school)," Brenn said. "So if we tell them to go home, and their parents are still going to work, those kids end up together. They’re in the community together. At least if I have them coming to school, I can guarantee that they’re six feet apart and that they’re wearing a mask.
"We’re being really vigilant and watching their symptoms and their temperatures, and they’re not just at home hanging out with their other 30 friends who are all on quarantine together."
Randy Watson, education commissioner for Kansas, said handfuls of Kansas school districts have used the modified quarantine guidance, which was issued by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment shortly before the school year started. However, more superintendents are starting to look at modified quarantine protocols, as well as other options, as they try to avoid the disruptions of regular quarantines.
Even then, districts will continue to face school shutdowns throughout this year because of staff shortages and quarantines, Watson said.
Living in a rural area by itself does not mean a lack of access to internet, and several rural districts are offering remote, livestreamed instruction alongside in-person teaching.
The challenge, however, is that for students in rural areas who do need access, finding reliable alternatives can be next to impossible. State officials estimate between 20% and 30% of the state’s rural population lacks access to basic broadband access.
Mary Williams, a language arts teacher and coach in Jefferson West USD 340, is personally familiar with the pitfalls of rural internet access. A little over two weeks ago, she was placed in quarantine after one of her cross country students caught COVID-19, and until late last week, she was teaching her classes from her home via livestream.
Even though her middle school in the 850-student district is just 20 minutes outside of Topeka, consistent and reliable internet access is difficult to find, she said.
"For us out here, the internet has been our biggest challenge," she said. "I don’t know exactly why, but the infrastructure has just never really been built for internet access for all. It doesn’t even seem the be that (internet providers) aren’t, for lack of a better term, chasing the money."
In the district’s two main communities, Meriden and Ozawkie, internet access is "decent," she said, but also prone to frequent drop outs. During her quarantine, she said she has dealt with situations when the internet has gone out at the school for two hours, and in teaching from home, she was only able to reach students who were also attending classes remotely.
Like other districts, USD 340 has provided mobile hotspots for students and teachers — Williams included — to use when working remotely. But even those aren’t consistently reliable, especially for students who might live in areas with poor or nonexistent mobile signal coverage.
And while students in larger towns and cities might have access to nearby community internet hotspots, distance becomes a factor for students in smaller districts, which cover comparatively bigger areas.
"In Topeka, they can bring in buses with hotspots, but we don’t have those capabilities when you have a kid who can’t walk to that area," Williams said. "That’s been our biggest issue, and we found it out pretty quickly back in March."
Beside purchasing internet hot spots, school districts like Wamego USD 320 have also found themselves working and negotiating with telecommunications companies to provide free or reduced price internet service for their district’s neediest families.
Clifford, the District 5 Kansas State Board of Education representative, said recent measures like the new Office of Broadband Development and $50 million in state grants to beef up broadband deployment and expand internet access in rural Kansas are long overdue. In any case, the measures will help improve not only access to education during the pandemic, she said, but also quality of life in those areas, she said.
"I wish we weren’t playing catch up. I wish this was already in place, but better late than never," she said. "I definitely think we need it, and I think it’s going to change the face of rural areas, because people will be able to move to them knowing that they can have an online job really anywhere in the world, independent of where they might want to live in."
Getting community buy-in
Although COVID-19 mitigation efforts have been successful inside their buildings, rural schools have not been immune to surging cases in their communities.
And while schools can enforce mask policies inside their buildings, they are powerless to keep staff and students wearing them outside of schools.
Hugoton USD 210 in Stevens County started with in-person masks but with masks required. The county had not had much COVID-19 exposure through August, but in September, cases surged, and the Hugoton Board of Education moved the district’s middle and high schools to hybrid learning after a third of the district’s students were in quarantine, said superintendent Adrian Howie, mostly from cases from external virus exposure.
Another point of difficulty Howie and other school leaders said they have seen is that students, particularly at the high school level, are trying to skirt COVID-19 quarantine and isolation requirements. When one COVID-19 case has the potential to send about a dozen other students home, students are put in the "bad position" of seeking treatment and naming close contacts but also sending their friends to quarantine, especially during playoff season for fall sports.
"Kids don’t want to be the rat, so to say," Howie said.
In making decisions about school operations, Howie said the community and school board have seen some tension, particularly as parents are put in the difficult situation of taking time off from work or finding child care alternatives. Meanwhile, some teachers and parents have been highly critical of in-person learning models they say put educators and families at higher risk for being infected.
No matter what, each decision is bound to make some people unhappy, and that tension is a contrast from the typical, intimate trust rural schools have cultivated with their communities, he said.
"When we’re in the middle of these challenging times — and I’ll say crisis, since this pandemic is not really a whole lot different from any other kind of crisis — I think the magnifying glass comes out," Howie said. "I don’t know if it’s from a lack of trust, but when people’s anxiety is heightened, I think they just want to ensure that their kids are safe and being cared for in the way we’d expect."
During a semester of significant changes to school operations for COVID-19, state education commissioner Randy Watson said a key point of contention has been in how different school stakeholders define a school’s role in their communities.
"What the pandemic has taught us is that even more than a learning environment, which we all know is extremely critical, schools play a custodial role that allowed economic engines to run," he said. "When you disrupt that, you not only disrupt learning, which has always been valuable, but you’re disrupting an economic engine because then parents have to stay home or they have to modify their job."
That’s true of all Kansas districts, he said, but as comparatively bigger parts of their communities, rural districts have had to deal with that tension a little more closely and have seen more pressure to have schools open.
Rural schools have always been pillars of their communities, perhaps more so than their urban counterparts, said Jerry Johnson, the K-State professor specializing in rural education. They’re often the largest employers and governmental entities in small communities, and Johnson said he wasn’t surprised to see communities not only taking their COVID-19 cues from school leaders, but occasionally taking issue with those precautions, as well.
Even though rural areas tend to be more conservative, the tension is not so much because of politics but because of the close proximity between districts and the families they serve, Johnson said.
As rural areas start to see climbing numbers of COVID-19 cases, Gov. Laura Kelly on Wednesday said she would again push for a statewide mask mandate by working with both Democratic and Republican leadership, which so far has been critical of a one-size-fits-all approach for the state.
Thomas County, like 95 other mostly rural Kansas counties, in July declined to require masks of its citizens. The Colby school district, which is in Thomas County, has likewise not yet required masks in its schools following a district survey that showed most parents were against a mask requirement. Superintendent Katina Brenn said decisions on wearing masks have so far been left to each family, with the exception of students in modified quarantine, who must wear masks while at school.
The lack of a mask requirement hasn’t been a significant issue, given the district’s ability to space students apart, but Brenn said the district was reserving the right to come back and require masks in schools, should the situation require it.
One silver lining of the pandemic, though, has been that parents and community members have become much more involved in the school decision-making process.
Back in Holton, USD 336 superintendent Bob Davies said that for all of the pushback he has seen on some of the school decisions he’s had to make, he’s glad that people are starting to value schools and their community roles.
"Is the school leading the community, or is the community leading the school?" Davies said. "Eh, it’s a give and take. We exist because as a school because of the community, but our community needs us, too.
"When I called off school like last week, I had to think about our community, too," he added. "I have to think about the kids’ safety first — that’s No. 1. But in the back of my mind, I’m also worried about how this will affect our families."