Recently, three members of the National Rural Education Association wrote about how protection from the worst of Covid-19 through vaccination supports the learning of students, the health of families, and the spirits of communities.

With vaccines now approved for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, everyone in the United States is eligible for the shot except babies under six months of age and those with contraindications to vaccination (such as an allergy to a component of the vaccine).

Unfortunately, for the last two months the pace of new rural vaccinations has remained flat.


Encouraging Education Around Covid-19 Vaccines

By Stephanie M. Lewis

I teach high school in a small, rural town. My husband Jim is a hospital pharmacist. Because of our jobs and underlying health conditions, we are both at high-risk for being exposed to Covid and potentially getting very sick from the virus, which is why we have encouraged our friends and family to take the Covid vaccines since the instant they became available.

“People want to do the right thing for themselves and their families, and they continue to search for reliable information to help them make the best decisions.”

Stephanie M. Lewis teaches high school students in a rural, small town. (Photo courtesy of Lewis.)

Covid-19 is a hard disease to understand. People want to do the right thing for themselves and their families, and they continue to search for reliable information to help them make the best decisions.

Because of our professions, comfort with research, and lack of fear in searching for answers, we support our friends and neighbors who often do not share the same access to information resources we enjoy. We support informal education about the vaccine’s efficacy through behavior modeling and casual conversations.

As a health care provider, Jim was eligible to be vaccinated soon after the shots became available in December 2020. Because he received the vaccine early in the process, folks in our small town felt comfortable contacting him (and me) about his experience.

When my students have questions, I share with them the science regarding the vaccines as best I know it, as well as my personal, positive experiences with vaccination.  They also know my high-risk medical status (I taught virtually last year) and see me racing the halls daily still wearing my face mask. Additionally, I begin my classes each day with a short news update from a reliable, unbiased news source. Covid and vaccination are frequent topics. Little by little, students are exposed to factual information in a nonthreatening manner. When they have questions about the news, we discuss their concerns before starting the day’s lesson plan.

“When my students have questions, I share with them the science regarding the vaccines as best I know it, as well as my personal, positive experiences with vaccination.”

People also post on social media when they receive their first and second boosters, which encourages others to consider getting their initial shots.

I am also finding that as summer approaches, interest in vaccinations increases for folks in this area who are going to be traveling. Cruise vacations are popular here, and it is mandatory to receive the shots before you can board the ship.

The conversations show the value of courteous discourse. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree, but we are learning from each other in the process.

As time passes, I am seeing students taking the initiative to get vaccinated. The kids who choose the vaccines proudly announce their decisions to me and always hold out their arms as if to prove they followed up. I brag on them wholeheartedly and thank them for taking care of themselves and others. That’s what we do in the South; we brag on good behavior as we define it on any given day.

The benefits of vaccination continue to abound here. We recently held our local cornbread festival for the first time in three years; it was a huge emotional boost to the town’s collective psyche.

“We recently held our local cornbread festival for the first time in three years; it was a huge emotional boost to the town’s collective psyche.”

Also important to me as a teacher is that fewer and fewer students are absent from school due to Covid. The greatest benefit is that I have not had to send condolences for several months to current and past students who have lost a parent to Covid.

Through the combined efforts of multiple townspeople supporting the benefits of vaccination against Covid-19, our little town is continuing to work its way to higher levels of vaccination.

For resources to help you in your conversations about Covid vaccination, including tips for having good conversations about vaccination with friends and family, check out WeCanDoThis.HHS.gov.  We Can Do This is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Covid-19 public education campaign, which seeks to increase confidence in Covid vaccines and reinforce basic prevention measures.

To find Covid vaccines near you, go to vaccines.gov. You can also call 1-800-232-0233 or text your ZIP code to 438829.


We Can Make Sure Students Don’t Miss Any More School

By Susanne Honeycutt

I am a second-grade school teacher in Walker County, Georgia. I have been teaching for over 20 years. In all my years of teaching, I have never experienced anything like the Covid-19 pandemic.

The disruption Covid has caused in the classroom is profound. My current second-graders have never experienced a normal school year. They were in kindergarten when the pandemic hit. I never dreamed school would close, but it did. And then we transitioned to hybrid learning (in-class and virtual instruction) the following year.

Susanne Honeycutt teaches second grade in Walker County, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Honeycutt.)

“The disruption Covid has caused in the classroom is profound. My current second-graders have never experienced a normal school year.”

Many of my students are struggling to catch up to grade level because of the fundamental lessons they missed over the last two years.

This year, my entire class was sent home for two weeks on the first day of school. When this happens, students are not just missing out on classroom instruction. Some of my students rely on school for their meals. They also miss out on important interactions that help their social–emotional development. In addition, teachers must use valuable instructional time to ensure students are following safety protocols as closely as possible.

I fear these interruptions will have lasting effects on my students’ abilities to flourish when they are in middle and high school. This is why I am so encouraged by the availability of Covid vaccines for everyone ages 5 and up. [Editor’s Note: On Saturday, June 18 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention further expanded vaccine eligibility, authorizing Covid-19 vaccines for all children six months and older.] Envision a classroom where students do not worry about the risk of exposure to a virus that may potentially cause them to miss school, become sick, or harm a family member.

“I fear these interruptions will have lasting effects on my students’ abilities to flourish when they are in middle and high school.”

Thankfully, getting vaccinated for Covid can help stop the spread of other variants and enable students to act and learn freely while feeling safe and supported by their school and community.

While things appear to be returning back to normal, I worry about the possibility of a new wave and the lasting effects some have experienced. Making informed decisions can help all of us continue on the path back to normalcy. As the national Covid-19 public education campaign affirms, “We can do this!”

To ensure everyone’s safety, it is imperative that we keep our children and families informed. For reliable information, parents can reach out to family doctors, pediatricians, your local public health department, or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To find Covid-19 vaccines near you, visit vaccines.gov.


Special Needs Parenting in the Covid Era

By Diana Outlaw, Associate Professor, Biological Sciences, Mississippi State University

To my fellow parents and community members in rural America,

After the schools closed in March, 2020, we sat out the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year, opting to keep our exceptional child safe at home. It’s not so much that we were worried about her being more vulnerable to Covid but that her poor adaptive skills and general lack of hygiene awareness made us extremely apprehensive about the germ-ridden cesspool of an elementary school.

Diana Outlaw teaches biological sciences at Mississippi State University. (Photo courtesy of Outlaw.)

You see, Arya has encephalopathy, essentially widespread brain damage that affects every aspect of her functioning, from her cognitive level to her understanding of time, from understanding her body’s cues to being able to find something that is right in front of her. She can be “trained,” but she doesn’t understand why. She learns through repetition, and her reasoning is always circular.

We had no choice for the 2021-2022 school year except to send her back. But we practiced with masks, and she showed us that she was exceptionally compliant. One upside of perseverance! We got her vaccinated as soon as she was eligible, and she was thrilled. She gets a subcutaneous growth hormone shot every day, so needles are not a big deal to her.

Arya is in a self-contained classroom, which means that most if not all of her classmates also have poor adaptive skills. Which translates to mean the most vulnerable students in the school, which further translates to the families of her classmates being more vulnerable than most because they are often the only care and safety that her classmates have. If one of their family members gets sick, the children will suffer.

“Literally, the kids had no class to go to, so that meant that someone had to be home caring for those kids, probably missing work, missing income, missing food.”

But, one night earlier this year, I got a text from Arya’s teacher, informing me that everyone in Arya’s class (students, teachers, aides) had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid. In that moment I was beyond upset — for my own family, and for the families of the rest of the students in the class. A caregiver goes down, and ward of the state may be the only choice for these kids. Everyone had to quarantine for five days, which really meant seven because it was a three-day weekend. Literally, the kids had no class to go to, so that meant that someone had to be home caring for those kids, probably missing work, missing income, missing food. The reality is that no one will likely ever know what the impact was. And, my cynical side believes that no one cares.

Let me just get really clear and blunt here. I am a privileged, well-educated white woman with multiple safety-nets. I can work from home and have all the benefits as a salaried state university employee. So, we quarantined and I worked when I could, with zero concern about our livelihood. Zero. Oktibbeha County in Mississippi, like most of Mississippi is rural, with limited internet access, limited access to transportation, limited access to health care. In a study examining the early impact of the pandemic in Mississippi, which has “the poorest score of all 50 states on the economic hardship index,  . . [taking] into account unemployment, dependency, education, income, crowded housing, and poverty,1rural Mississippians had significantly higher case rates and mortalities than non-rural Mississippians. In this context of rurality and poverty, essential employees at the university and in the community had no choice over the course of the pandemic. They couldn’t work at home. They couldn’t be home to make sure their kids got their schoolwork done. For most of the families in Arya’s class, another 5 day quarantine has real, and quite likely economic, consequences — consequences that could be prevented with widespread vaccination.

“For most of the families in Arya’s class, another 5 day quarantine has real, and quite likely economic, consequences — consequences that could be prevented with widespread vaccination.”

So please — if you can, get vaccinated, and get your kids vaccinated. We Can Do This! For yourselves, for kids and families like those of Arya’s classmates. The caregivers of vulnerable children thank you very much. For more information about vaccinations, go to vaccines.gov.

1Zhang, L., Mcleod, S. T., Vargas, R., Liu, X., Young, D. K., & Dobbs, T. E. (2020). Subgroup comparison of Covid-19 case and mortality with associated factors in Mississippi: findings from analysis of the first four months of public data. Journal of biomedical research34(6), 446–457. https://doi.org/10.7555/JBR.34.20200135


 

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