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In Rural Texas, School Districts Are Making Sure Kids Get Connected At Home

Ricardo ISD
Students celebrate long before COVID-19 hit at a school in the tiny Ricardo, Texas, school district.

Ricardo in South Texas is a tiny blip on the map. There's no grocery store and no traffic light.

It does, however, have a school district. Enrollment: 673 students. And just like in many other places right now, kids there have to do their school work at home.

“It’s a small rural school district, so the principals and I get in the car and we drive around and drop off homework,” Ricardo Independent School District Superintendend Maria T. Canales said. “We drop off laptops. We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure our students have what they need.”

Canales is a member of the Texas Education Agency’s Rural Schools Task Force. In her part of Texas, she said they still do some things the old-fashioned way.

“This has been very eye-opening to all of us – teachers, and administrators – because we’ve never really done online learning. You know?” she said. “I mean, this is a small school, everything is paper, pencil, you know. Our communication is telephone.”

Across the country, rural school districts are up against some of the same challenges they’ve always faced. Not all families are digitally connected and for those who are, internet connection can be spotty, or they can’t afford to pay for a stronger connection. In Texas, more than 20% of public schools are located in rural parts of the state.

Canales said they have to get creative.

» RELATED | KERA's At-Home Learning Toolkit is a collection of teaching and activity resources for parents and educators. Keep kids educated and engaged with these materials and live programming.

These tools and materials have been specially curated for parents and caregivers with school-aged children at home, as well as for educators who are teaching remotely.

“It is an issue because when you’re out in the country, there’s dead spots,” she said. “I know that in some places, they are taking school buses and putting a hot spot on the bus and then taking it out into certain areas of the community so that those homes can connect to those hot spots.”

The district has also issued 18 Chromebooks to students who didn’t have internet access at home or only have it on their cell phone. Also, two local companies are offering free internet access to families that need it. It’s not WiFi, but the district bought several Ethernet adaptors to give to those families who need to connect.

Up north in the Texas Panhandle, Marshall Harrison is superintendent of Sunray Independent School District, which has 600 students. Harrison sits on Gov. Greg Abbott’s newly-created Texas Broadband Development Council.

“Probably about 15% of our student population does not have access to the Internet,” Harrison said. “So our job in this is to make sure that we reach out and address our needs and line those folks up with an internet provider that may be able to deliver internet at a reduced or lower rate.”

The other goal? Making sure teachers are tech savvy. Harrison's district has required teachers to develop online teaching strategies for the past few years. He just never imagined they'd have to implement them during a pandemic.

The good news is that there’s a world of resources for teachers, rural or urban, who need ideas for lesson plans. Ricardo ISD links to different websites, like one that features children’s authors and celebrities reading stories, like actor David Harbour. Harbour’s best known for playing Police Chief Jim Hopper on the hit Netflix series Stranger Things.

But on this site, he’s reading from the book Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book)

"Snappsy the alligator wasn’t feeling like himself.

His feet felt draggy,

His skin felt baggy.

His tail wouldn’t swish this way and that.

And, worst of all, his big jaw wouldn’t SNAP.”

As Harrison of Sunray ISD put it, there are some bright spots in all of this.

“For so many years, we focused solely on a test,” Harrison said. “We focused solely on activities that truly in the big picture things do not bring home a validity of teaching kids about life skills.”

What this crisis is teaching everyone, he added, is what’s truly important, and that anyone – including rural school districts – can adapt and also have some fun while they’re at it.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.