Education in Appalachia: COVID-19 is changing education in the region

Dec 7, 2020
How can you keep kids engaged when you can’t even get them online?

Even before COVID-19 entered the picture, Appalachia had experienced a myriad of economic issues. But what close-knit communities in the region may lack in infrastructure, they make up in ingenuity.

What should equity in education look like? How can teachers creatively tap into the passion that drew them to teaching in the first place? And how can communities maintain a sense of hometown pride in a region that’s struggling on so many levels?

In this podcast, hosted by Dr. Caitlin Howley, director of child welfare and education at ICF, we discuss challenges students, parents, and educators across Appalachia are facing as they deal with COVID-19. The conversation with Dr. John Ross, one of ICF’s experts on instructional design and blended learning, covers topics such as:

  • The effect limited resources have on every aspect of the educational experience.
  • How different schools and school districts are addressing internet access and barriers to technology.
  • What online learning reveals about student engagement prior to the pandemic.
  • Positive changes in education that will likely remain long after COVID-19 is no longer a threat.

Full transcript below:

Caitlin: Hello, and welcome to the first episode of our new podcast series on education issues in the Appalachian region of the country. I'm Caitlin Howley, director of child welfare and education at ICF. Joining me today is my colleague, Dr. John Ross. John's roots are deep in the region, and his expertise--which centers on instructional design, online and blended learning, and planning for and implementing educational technology--is crucial in this time of COVID-19. So, how are you doing today, John?

John: Very good. Thanks for asking me to be here.

The unexpected impacts of limited infrastructure

Caitlin: My pleasure. So, what are some of the big issues that are really making it difficult for educators, families, and students in various communities across Appalachia to deal with COVID-19 and its resulting public health restrictions?

John: I've been thinking about this a lot. When I say things like there's high poverty in the area, that there's lack of infrastructure, I think a lot of people will relate to that in other areas as well--not just Appalachia. And so, it's not that any one particular aspect of living in the area is making it difficult for educators and families. I think it's a confluence of issues. It's not that we don't have infrastructure. It's just that our infrastructure is often very limited or very tight, and when something like this happens the chinks in the armor come very quickly. As an example, I'm working with a school district--and it's the farthest west school district in Virginia--and working with some teachers there and they're really trying to do some great things. They're trying to do some problem-based learning and engage kids in their community and help them develop projects that would go back out to the community. All that got put on hold because now teachers are driving buses because they had so few bus drivers, and if bus drivers can't drive the bus anymore, somebody has to. Same thing with substitutes. Some of my school districts, there are no substitutes. And I know it's strange to think of substitute in an online class, but sometimes you do need a substitute in an online class. A lot of our schools are still doing the hybrid model with some online and some in class. It is this issue of having some infrastructure, but not really quite having as robust an infrastructure as everywhere else. Certainly, broadband and access to the internet is a huge problem in many areas, not just in Appalachia, but one of my superintendents put out a memo in March and forbade any teachers in the district to use videos or high bandwidth media because they could actually notice the network slowing down when people were doing that.

Caitlin: It's interesting your observations about how the region has some infrastructure but not everywhere, and it reminds me...and this might be a bit of a stretch for a quote, but it's from the science fiction novelist William Gibson, he said, "The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed." I think that is the case across Appalachia.

John: Yeah. Some of our regions can't even get cell phone service, so I'm not even talking about broadband. And if they can actually connect with people, that's a positive thing, but if you can't get cell phone service, you certainly can't get any internet.

Caitlin: Right. Well, you mentioned the issues associated with poverty, for example. There's a long history, a long legacy of economic issues across the region. And as a result, lots of students will have already experienced trauma, for example, from unemployment of their family members or fallout from the opioid crisis. In what ways has COVID-19 made it more challenging for children from families throughout the region who were already experiencing trauma before the pandemic?

John: I think a big issue has become that lack of support, especially, like you mentioned, medical issues. Like many areas, we're just overwhelmed at some places in terms of what supports people can obtain being diagnosed positively. I just heard my neighbor has tested positive, and they're not a young man. And our neighborhood is very close-- that's something about Appalachia, our neighborhood is really close and very strong, and we don't know if he's going to be able to find the support he needs, and so we're really concerned about that.

Creative ways schools are working to meet their students’ needs

Caitlin: That is a notable feature of the region. I'm glad you brought that up, which leads me to the next round of questions that I want to ask you. Now we've admired the problem in terms of what it presents for schools, and families, and communities, and students themselves. Let's talk some about how people on the ground are working to address the problems that are arising from COVID-19. So, what are some of the ways that you've observed districts and schools trying to address these challenges?

John: Well, I think teachers and everybody who's working in education, they're just truly heroic in their efforts to try to keep education going. Some of the things they're trying are just amazing. They're trying these things in other places as well, but I do have the honor of being part of this network of school districts across the state, the Virginia is for Learners Network. My region is the Southwest Virginia area, and some of the things that these schools are trying just to make sure that education continues going is really wonderful. Of course, the first issue for schools in March actually became the place where kids were fed. So, they had to keep getting food out to kids and to families. For a lot of these kids, this is a substantial amount of the meals that they get during a day. And so, we hear buses driving around and dropping off, or they have pickup stations at schools. That was our focus at the beginning, and once we got over that panic and we had those systems in place, we started to turn back around to trying to get to instruction. And, of course, teachers are trying all different kinds of things. I've worked with some school districts that have said, "We're just not going to go online because we can't reasonably get to a large enough population, so we're going to figure out a way to get materials to kids and maybe a paper-based format or a packet." And so, teachers volunteering to deliver these things--or when you're delivering food on a bus, you also deliver instruction and you pick up the packet from the kid the last time. Lots of teachers calling using different kinds of phone services to leave messages and to provide homework help. They've really done a lot of things.

The bandwidth issue, a lot of places just bought devices. So, in March, probably the world's largest series of purchase orders went out for technology, which has also been a struggle because so many districts didn't get them. I know that's not just an Appalachian thing, but some of my districts didn't get their devices by the time school started. And you're half remote or you're fully remote and you don't have a device-- that was a real challenge, trying to get that access to kids. So they're trying things like extending the range of the internet signal from the school building so it goes farther out, but that's still not really great. Like, you and your mom and your little brother and sister get in the car to drive to the school to sit in the parking lot so that you could take turns using the WiFi for the one laptop. That's just not ideal, although schools are really trying to address that.

Considerations to create equity in education

Caitlin: It's interesting, I mean, these schools and districts are trying really hard to overcome these serious challenges. And you made a really good point when you and I were talking about this earlier that the efforts that districts and schools are undertaking really are Band-Aids for problems that require solutions that are more systemic. So, do you envision that there will be any move-- as a result of this period of time--in terms of creating more comprehensive, more structural solutions?

John: I think what's happening is the capacity at school districts is growing in terms of resources and human capacity about to support learning in a non-ideal situation. So how to continue learning going, even though we're not coming into school--or we're not all coming into the school or we're coming into school every other day, whatever that is. There's a lot of that going on, but the schools are so dependent upon larger infrastructure that they have no control over. And I've sat in meetings where we've talked about bandwidth and why we can't get high-speed internet to some of these regions, and some of it is finances, some of it's who's available to do it. Will there be a return on investment if we provide that information out there? At some point, it almost becomes thinking about if every child deserves a free public education, do they also deserve free access to that education? And do they deserve adequate access to that education? The telecommunications have done some things. In my area, they've opened up hotspots with no passwords for a while, and they made it low cost like $9.95 a month. But for some families, $9.95 a month goes for meals for a few days, so they can't even afford that.

Caitlin: Right. Yeah. These are the kinds of questions that, they're not just technical questions. They're also fundamental questions about democracy and what we owe our children, and our families, and communities.

John: Yeah. I work in school districts all across the country, not just here. I work in some of the largest school districts in the nation--as well as very tiny school districts and private schools--and just a wide range of things all across the country, and in some state departments or with some state departments. Almost all of my conversations now include the word "equity."

Caitlin: That's very interesting.

John: School educators and some policymakers are aware that this is an issue, and they want to do something about it. And equity has many sides and many facets. We just haven't really tackled that issue I think as a society, or a nation--or multiple nations--in such a way that we think that every kid deserves a free education that should be of high-quality, and they shouldn't have to give up something just to be able to get access to their learning or to a learning environment.

Caitlin: Yeah. I mean, I think that is emerging from the very interesting historical moment where we're sitting in or experiencing.

What virtual learning has revealed about our education system

John: Right.

Caitlin: So, all of these things that have been there. These are continuous dynamics. They were suddenly revealed to so many people, including educators and education leaders.

John: I'm so glad you brought that up because there's one thing that we really learned that was revealed. I like your word, "reveal." One thing that was really revealed was what we were doing at schools was not really good for a lot of people. A lot of kids were just not engaged. They didn't find it relevant. I mean, going back to the Gates survey decades ago about how most kids who drop out were just bored, well, those bored kids [inaudible] in March, they just didn't log in. And now, I've got school districts where they've done pretty well. One down the road, they have a university in the town--and so a lot of people who value education--and they have a high percentage of kids who have not come back to school since March. They're calling parents, and they're talking to parents and sending emails, and they're just not getting traction. The only reaction they're getting is the kids say, "It's just not worth it. It's not relevant to me." I think that became very apparent in March. And so many people have said this, that we tried to do what we were doing before--but what we were doing before, it was with a captive audience, right? So, you could lecture to a bunch of kids in a classroom because they didn't have anywhere to go, and if they went somewhere, they got in trouble. But now, you try to lecture to a bunch of kids who are spread across a wide area, and if you're not engaging--or relevant or important--they just turn you off.

Caitlin: Yeah. It's like teachers have lost the leverage that they had just by being there, present physically.

John: Right. But, at the same time, there are a lot of teachers who are trying to do new things. And so, they're going back to thinking about what is really engaging and important about their content. Why do they do this? I mean, I was a music teacher. I love music. It was so much fun, and so that's why I did that. And I think that's why a lot of teachers become teachers, and maybe the accountability push kind of led them astray from that. But a lot of teachers are going back to “why did I really enjoy reading and writing, and how can I share my love of reading and writing?” Or “why did I enjoy physics?” Or “why did I enjoy whatever?” And so, maybe taking a step back and thinking about, “can I engage my kids in a way that can help procreate that passion that I have for what I was teaching?”

An opening to changes in how educators approach their craft

Caitlin: So, have you seen some of that when you've worked with the teachers during the pandemic? Have you seen their instruction change?

John: Yes, and sometimes no. And sometimes the no’s are teachers want to, but don't get support to try new things--maybe from fear from the administration thinking, "Oh, we're not going to do well on that test, that test that measures only low-level cognitive ability." They want to try new things. And there are some districts that are doing that. I was working with Buchanan County in far west Virginia, not West Virginia.

Caitlin: Yeah, right, an important distinction.

John: They just did something simple. They did this ‘no worksheet on Wednesdays,’ so it's No Worksheet Wednesdays. And just that simple thing that “we're going to now replace that with questioning and collaboration and interacting with each other” was just a start. So, now they pushed that into the idea of providing more authentic experiences throughout the week--not just on Wednesday. That was last year. This year they're expanding that. Here’s an interesting success story. One of my districts in the Virginia is for Learners Network. Their kids come either Monday, Thursday, Tuesday, Friday. So, they don't see all the kids all the time. But Wednesday has become teacher planning day, teacher professional learning day. There's also homework help and tutoring time, and that has been so successful that the school district is hoping that--when we're back in school in-person--they can keep Wednesdays like that. That would be a huge change to just the basic schedule of what a school is, but it would provide that opportunity that many schools don't, which is ongoing professional learning for the adults.

It’s a really interesting model that I hope they can achieve when they go back to school. Seeing lots more community connections and trying to make kids understand that what they're doing in school can help prepare them when they leave school. And for a lot of communities in Appalachia--and you know this--that our kids go away. These programs where they're trying to build up community connections now are so that our infrastructure will be more robust. We'll use our own kids, our own kids who want to stay here. I mean, people live here for different reasons. Some people have lived here for generations, but I moved here. And driving through Bland County to get to West Virginia through the tunnels, I mean, it's one of the most beautiful places, I think, in our country. Or driving out through Lee County, far west Virginia. And so, my neighbors here-- I've lived all over the country because my parents were military--I have never been as close to my neighbors as I am here. And we're all different ages. We're all not the same age, and we're all from different places. So, you know, you come here for a reason and you want your kids to stay here and have that positive quality of life, but also have the other things that they want. Sorry, that was a little rambling, but...

Caitlin: No, but it really resonated with me. I understand the tension that Appalachian families feel about higher education, in particular, because of the tension that it presents to particularly rural young people and their families. Everybody wants the best for their children, and that might mean going to college, but college might not be nearby. And then once you've gone to college, you become a different person. And also, you maybe now have a degree that you can't use if you wanted to return home. And that's just a hard place for families and young people to be, especially if they feel strongly attached to where they came of age.

John: Yeah.

Caitlin: And so, I see the tension, for sure.

John: Yeah. And like when I was at Virginia Tech, a lot of kids come there to try and change their life, to shun that background, change their accent, try not to acknowledge. There are professors at every university who try to encourage kids, "That's an important part of you. Don't get rid of that. You can add to it, but keep that part of you."

Funding options to keep positive change growing

Caitlin: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I want to get down to something very practical, and frankly, it's about money. How can educators in the region--particularly in rural places--leverage relief funds associated with COVID-19 to put into place some of the structures that you were talking about earlier to enhance virtual engagement and learning opportunities for students, even beyond the pandemic?

John: I'm certainly not the world's greatest expert on that, but I've seen some interesting things where there are funds that come to schools. There are Perkins funds that go for career in technical education programs. And there are opportunities now for schools to develop their own local infrastructure that could then support kids in those programs. So maybe expanding hardware and networking software--things like that--getting training for teachers that then could be leveraged by an expanded CTE program. CTE programs have always been really important around here, but the CTE programs--at least, and the experiences that I have--are evolving. We're trying to catch up with the 21st century, and so now CTE programs not just for agriculture or business applications, but are going into IT management and networking and all those things that, yes, can get you a job somewhere else, but are also important at the local hospital, or for a shopping mall, or whatever. Building that basic infrastructure so that later you can leverage the funds you know you're going to get might be a way that schools could use those funds.

Setting the stage for a brighter future in Appalachia

Caitlin: Well, I could talk with you about all of this stuff for much, much longer, but I think we're running out of time. So, I will wrap things up with one last question. Imagine 10 or 20 years hence, that the pandemic has been dealt with, we have a reliable vaccine. What kinds of changes do you see happening in 10 or 20 years as a result of this national experience, but also the particular experience of it in Appalachia? What do you think will be different in Appalachia in terms of education, schools, community?

John: That will happen or that I want to happen?

Caitlin: That is an important distinction. What would you want to happen?

John: Well, I'll share with you. So, I'm coaching a lot of different school districts right now through that Virginia is for Learners Network, and a colleague of mine shared this question that he's using with his teams. And he says, "Because of COVID, this happened," right? "COVID came in and this happened in our school district. And then we tried these things. We tried X, Y, and Z to kind of offset what happened by COVID." And then he asked them, "Of those things, what are you going to keep doing?" What we should continue to do, and what I hope happens is that educators everywhere--but especially here--realize that what we were doing wasn't right for everybody, and we have really expanded our toolkit. We have really changed the way we can interact with kids, that we can engage kids and we can connect to communities, and then the way that we're trying kids to come back by making it more relevant and engaging. Let's keep that kind of thing going. And then let's realize that just because we're in Appalachia doesn't mean that our kids can't have the highest quality education possible. A district down the road is working on tele-mentoring internships for kids so that they can work with big-name IT companies regardless of their geographical proximity. I'm hoping that we realize that we can now teach better, that we have more tools to use, and that we can engage kids more because this happened--and that we don't think we have to go back to “stand and deliver” or more transmissive pedagogy, which could be a whole another podcast about why that's appropriate. But what I'm hoping is that we have learned from this how to make things better and that we don't just go back. We have to go forward. We have to, even when we're back in school--and I hope it's not 10, 20 years-- with everybody there, we're going to continue to do things differently.

Caitlin: Well, I'm going to embrace that hope with you, John. So, thank you very much. It's been fun, as always, to talk with you. It's always illuminating. Thank you.

John: Thank you for being such a big advocate for the area.

Meet the author
  1. Caitlin Howley, Portfolio Lead, Youth and Adult Education

    Caitlin is an expert in education and child welfare with over two decades of experience. View bio

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