Championing education for rural communities during the coronavirus

Compassion and flexibility have served area educators well in efforts to bridge the digital divide.


January 15, 2021



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Across the globe, the coronavirus has impacted nearly every aspect of daily life. As we continue to navigate and define new challenges, the impacts on K-12 education remain at the forefront of consideration and conversation among school leaders, educators and families alike.

In spring, school districts began mobilizing to transform the landscape of learning and continue instruction virtually, via emergency remote teaching. But for rural communities, such as Levy County, Florida, where 92 percent of the county live in rural settings, the transition to virtual was not so seamless.

For more than 10 years, Maria Coady, professor of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and bilingual education, has served rural communities and worked closely with the Levy County School Board as part of Project STELLAR, a grant-funded initiative that supports English language learners (ELLs) and their families in rural settings across the country.

Central to her research is exploration into the relationship between land and space for bilingual and multilingual communities, an interest kindled when she arrived at the University of Florida in 2003.

“Place matters in who we are as people and the way schools and people in communities function,” she said.

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Maria Coady


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Beyond preparing teacher leaders to serve these communities, Coady has worked to rebuild Florida as a national leader in bilingual education by establishing the nation’s first statewide repository of bilingual education programs and revitalizing the Florida Association of Bilingual Education (FABE) in 2018.

She has been recognized for her unmatched commitment to serving marginalized communities garnering the American Educational Research Association (AERA) 2020 Exemplary Contributions to Practice-Engaged Research Award.

“I‘m just deeply honored and humbled by AERA,” she said. “… I feel like it’s always trying to affirm the work of scholars, and the fact that they actually have this award to recognize the kind of work that takes place often in invisible spaces but that’s valued by communities … that’s very powerful.”


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While those who reside in rural settings are no strangers to unique daily challenges, Coady shared the introduction of the coronavirus has only further exacerbated these adversities and disparities.

“There are inequities that are inherent in education in the United States,” Coady said. “… But even more so in coronavirus, when we’re talking about physical distances — actual space between educators and children and where they live and students — then that also becomes another inherent inequity.”

As rural communities exist often at a distance from urban and suburban areas, access to stable Wi-Fi or internet connection at all is not guaranteed. Further, some families do not have the means to own personal computers or laptops for children to participate in online courses.

Beyond limited digital connectivity, the impact on education for students in rural communities has magnified due to factors such as communication, health and harvest season.

As all students in Levy County are on free lunch, with many also receiving food assistance for their families, establishing new methods of access to these services was imperative once emergency remote teaching began.

Additionally, without the typical channels of communication linking schools and families, consistency in contact became increasingly difficult, particularly for ELL students who often serve as the conduit for communication for their families.

“We have things like distance, healthcare, access to digital connectivity, supplies, materials and resources, and then we have language and cultural barriers,” Coady said. “These are tremendous.”

As physical distance is a clear barrier for rural communities already, access to healthcare providers and local hospitals became a heightened concern.

“That’s a real barrier to people being able to survive and address some of the health care challenges that they have in their immediate environment,” Coady said.

Moreover, a high percentage of Levy County’s rural residents serve in the agricultural industry, some of which are undocumented. As the pandemic aligned with the blueberry harvest season in the spring, many had to continue to work during this time, often bringing their children to assist in picking blueberries.

“Undocumented workers that contribute to the functioning of the country and certainly to the food supply chain in the United States — they are the essential workers and they’re the people that really need additional support but don’t access that support because of their immigration status,” Coady said.

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But despite these compounded strains on daily life and continued learning, the greatest impact witnessed by Coady in Levy County is the radiating resilience and spirit of rural communities.

Educators and school leaders remain wholeheartedly dedicated to ensuring the wellbeing and academic outcomes of all students.

In response to limited digital connectivity, schools across the county created and distributed take-home packets delivered to families in need at school pick-up locations and surrounding bus stops. Particularly for high school students and graduating seniors, schools with the capability provided Chromebooks and Kajeet SmartSpots for check out so that students could gain access to their online courses.

“Teachers that are just going out of their way to make sure that they’re meeting their kids’ needs,” said Jaime Handlin, principal of Williston Elementary School.

To safeguard the nourishment of students and their families, schools provided a week’s worth of food at school pick-up locations and bus stops. The Food4Kids Backpack Program also continued serving the county, with deliveries even being made directly to homes for those without transportation.

“It really has shown us the difference between the kids that have something and kids that don’t have anything,” Handlin said.

To keep in contact with families and facilitate meaningful learning, teachers went above and beyond in the creativity of their teaching, the flexibility of their hours of online instruction and their availability to connect, even making home visits to check in on students and families as needed.

“Those are the touching things to me that really made a difference, that you’re going the extra mile,” Handlin said. “… The academics is one thing, but the social and emotional part was a little bit more of a concern for us because we wanted to make sure their wellbeing was cared for at home when we don’t have our eyes on them every day.”

Coady shared that the communications links and partnerships Project STELLAR has cultivated over the years have provided the foundation needed to continue connecting with and fostering the success of ELL students during the pandemic.

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While spring and summer gave space to focus on devising creative solutions to meet students’ basic needs, the reopening of schools in the fall uncovered new challenges and obstacles, particularly in measuring and combating the loss of learning caused by the transition to emergency remote teaching.

Although ELL students were previously able to complete the WIDA Access 2.0, the English language proficiency test, schools were not able to conduct the typical Florida Standards Assessments and other diagnostics testing in spring. As such, schools did not have the necessary data to place students or tailor course content to match proficiency for the new school year.

In Levy County, families had the option to remain remote or return to the classroom. By the end of the first nine weeks, nearly all students at Williston Elementary returned with educators finding reteaching children foundational tasks, such as how to write their names or tie their shoes, a new necessity.

“We don’t know the long-term effect of coronavirus with children coming behind academically, but what I’ve seen is the strength within the rural community of supporting families and children in areas that they need support,” Coady said.

Although the impact on learning caused by coronavirus is still being unearthed, Levy County’s school leaders and educators remain dedicated to ensuring the welfare and success of all students, no matter the challenges that come.

“I think that there will be a time to reflect next summer in preplanning, and I hope it’s a point to rethink how much can be achieved at a distance level and how much can’t be,” Coady said. “… I think there’s an opportunity here — a real pragmatic look at what we can do and what we can’t do.”

While this work carries on — taking many forms in diverse rural communities across the country — Coady calls for national dialogue and action to tackle these issues collaboratively enlisting interdisciplinary scholars and practitioners.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we need a national center for rural multilingual education,” she said. “… I would love to see that happen and I would be honored to work with people in this area.”