Rural schools wrestle with infrastructure challenges during reopening

As the White House faces criticism for a push to return to in-person instruction and a reopening debate splits the nation, some rural schools remain poised to welcome students back to brick-and-mortar settings this month. 

“Some places have not many cases at all and they’re questioning, ‘Why should we hold off if we’re OK?’” said Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, adding there are “large parts of the population that want to reopen.” 

But rural schools face persistent challenges that the coronavirus has only exacerbated. Many school buildings are old and in need of replacement or repair and don’t have adequate air filtration systems. Plus, many rural districts have scant resources to successfully implement hybrid or fully remote learning if their schools need to close again. 

For these reasons, sticking to reopening guidelines for some rural schools is going to be “really difficult,” Pratt said.

Air filtration issues

Because the coronavirus is airborne, some health experts have cautioned that well-functioning air ventilation systems are a must as schools reopen. Pratt points out this will be especially challenging for many rural schools, considering their infrastructure “is not designed to do what they’re going to be asked to do.” 

In Bristol Virginia Public Schools, for example — which had only four cases of coronavirus until that number increased to 10 in the past two weeks — almost 70% of parents, students and staff have asked for a normal return to school. The district’s newest school was built in 1974, and its oldest dates back to 1916.

“Those buildings weren’t built to today’s standards,” said Superintendent Keith Perrigan, who is also president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia. “Because of school safety concerns, you can’t just leave the doors and windows open like they were intended to be.” 

Due to poor air quality and airflow in some buildings, Perrigan said he has had to invest in air scrubbers as well as filters and HVAC systems in addition to other coronavirus-related costs like personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning equipment. 

For many schools nationwide, these challenges were widespread prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a June report from the Government Accountability Office, 41% of districts have problems with HVAC systems, which amounts to about 36,000 school buildings nationwide. 

Trane Technologies is an industrial manufacturer that has supplied heating and air conditioning systems to schools for over 100 years. Mike Hines, Trane’s energy services leader for education, said rural districts especially tend to have older buildings and exhibit these problems. 

“We’re just starting now, within the last couple weeks, to see a surge in concern or thought about the air conditioning and the ventilation [in schools],” Hines said. 

Whitney Coe, director of national programs for the Center for Rural Strategies, said part of the problem is a lack of reliable data on the state of school infrastructure in rural areas across the nation. Current information, she said, is often state-, region- and county-specific.

The GAO report confirms as such, showing only 11 states have conducted a statewide facilities condition assessment in the past decade, and just 15 have required their districts to do so. Meanwhile, 21 either have not conducted statewide or district-wide assessments or do not know if they have, and a majority of those states have sizable rural populations

Chris Torline, a business development engineer with Trane, said while assessments of systems are the first step, rural schools also “struggle with having the skill set as well as the time and resources to really be in tune” with their buildings. He said bus drivers, mechanics or other district staff sometimes double as facilities and maintenance employees. 

As a possible workaround to air ventilation issues, Pratt and Perrigan are floating the idea of outdoor classrooms. In Australia, for example, Pratt noted school leaders have used megaphones or public address (PA) systems to conduct classes and assemblies. 

Still, that temporary solution could be challenging for underfunded rural districts.

“If you don’t have a way to make improvements to your outdoors — shade or other safety and security measures — you can’t use your outdoor spaces,” said Mary Filardo, executive director and founder of the 21st Century School Fund, which promotes improving school facilities, during a roundtable moderated by the Rural Assembly and the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative. 

Other building concerns Filardo pointed out include sinks and bathrooms, which are needed for routine handwashing as recommended by health guidelines but sometimes are inoperable or in poor condition, and in tight, unmaintained spaces.

“How do you socially distance if you [all] have to stay around the corner because the buckets have to catch the water from the roof?” Filardo asked. “There’s a lot of problems with implementing the mitigation measures if you are in basically poor conditions.”

Distance learning challenges

And even if in-person learning remains out of the question, hybrid or fully remote learning is a challenge for rural schools as well. 

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) pointed to the 30 school districts in his congressional district during the roundtable discussion, 20 of which he said don’t have connectivity, making virtual learning “nonexistent.”

“Now, compounded with what they had to go through at the end of this [school] year, they are now being told, ‘Well, you’re going to have to come up with some kind of a hybrid system,’” he said. “But it’s all based on connectivity, again, that we don’t have.” 

In Perrigan’s district, which is relatively better-connected than other rural areas, approximately 100 out 2,100 did not have internet and required Wi-Fi hotspots. 

When schools closed in March, officials in many rural districts said even hotspots wouldn’t be a “silver bullet” for areas that don’t have cellular towers installed. They resorted to distributing paper packets for students. 

According to a report released in July, 16.9 million students nationwide remain without home internet access. About 36%, or 1.7 million households, are located in rural areas.

Pratt noted an “uptick” in USB usage for rural schools, which could help with transferring instructional videos and other information to students who remain remote and without connectivity, as indicative of this problem. 

With coronavirus, Pratt said there is now “more on the line” and “a golden opportunity to push for infrastructure money.”

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