Rural school districts facing unique challenges amid coronavirus pandemic

Districts face internet connectivity issues

SOMERSET, Texas – Rural school districts are facing unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic as students start the fall semester.

About 90% of students ride the bus at Somerset Independent School District, which is about 87 square miles and crosses into Atascosa County. Of the total 4,300 students enrolled in the district, 10% do not have internet access for online learning.

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Last year, district bus drivers were able to deliver meals to students, but once face-to-face learning begins, Somerset ISD Superintendent Saul Hinojosa says they will not have the ability to do that.

Hinojosa said concerns of families in the region include the lack of access to testing sites close to the community, internet connectivity issues and few day care options for families.

“We issued many hotspots at the at the end of the year last year, and students were still unable to connect because it was just off the grid,” Hinojosa said.

The district was able to supplement and distribute paper packets for students without access to the internet and plans on doing so again if needed.

“There are some allowances in order for kids to come onto campus to access the Wi-Fi or internet. We might have to make some accommodations for those types of students the first couple of weeks,” Hinojosa said. “And logistically, we’ll have to plan for those kids coming into our buildings.”

Hinojosa said a survey conducted earlier in the summer showed that 70% of families wanted to have virtual learning.

That’s a very different response to what families in the Navarro Independent School District want, according to Superintendent Wendi Russell.

Russell said the district survey showed that more than 80% of the families of the roughly 2,000 students enrolled wanted to do in-person learning when classes begin.

“We just haven’t had the high number of cases in this area,” Russell said. “And of course, being rural, that I think that helps a lot.”

Russell said the district is also challenged with internet connectivity problems that Somerset ISD faces. The biggest concern, Russel said, is not having the staff to do online and face-to-face learning at the same time.

“Our school doesn’t have extra personnel, extra teachers or support staff to help with that,” Russell said.

Logistically, both superintendents agreed that rural school districts have fewer students to spread out, which is an advantage in this case.

However, both districts also have fewer families and less ability to get them to agree on some difficult decisions.

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