One rural teacher says moving the table with her laptop closer to the router helps with connection quality, and her colleagues are understanding about interruptions from her 4-year-old and the dog. (Photo by JoNita Schuman)

Join the Daily Yonder and the National Rural Assembly for a livestream conversation on rural broadband, taking place Thursday, April 16 at 4 p.m. Eastern Time. 

In a normal year, an Easter snowstorm like we had in northern Wisconsin might have forced some rural school districts to extend classes further into June. Others, though, have been working to avoid extensions by using Virtual Learning Time.

That’s what educational planners call alternative ways to deliver instruction when it’s too snowy, icy, cold or flooded for busses to run, or when schools have to be shut down temporarily due to widespread illness. In fact, just before Wisconsin’s governor ordered schools statewide to close, several districts in my area had temporary shut-downs because so many students and teachers were out sick with flu-like and respiratory symptoms. Kids who weren’t out sick already went home with packets of worksheets right before what would have been our spring break.

The statewide Safer At Home order went into effect, so many kids in rural northern Wisconsin spent that week helping gather sap for maple syrup, doing puzzles, and watching all the DVDs their parents checked out before the public libraries closed. Their parents filled out an Access To Learning survey that helped the school assess what devices and internet capability students would have at home. Teachers and school administrators scrambled to come up with plans to meet the educational and nutritional needs of students for what might be the rest of the school year.

At the same time, colleges were sending students home and telling instructors to get ready to teach online — even labs and clinical practice classes.

All levels from 4-K through graduate school started distance learning from home, often with parents trying to work from home, too. Unless you’re one of the lucky rural areas that got a grant or a telephone co-op to put in fiber optics, you won’t be surprised to hear our internet became slower than ever. A friend who teaches 4-K dragged her kitchen table as close as she could to her router for Zoom meetings.

“My internet isn’t enough to load videos to YouTube that are over a minute or so long,” she says. So she records all her videos for the next week at home then uploads them from school during her once-a-week time slot to enter the building. 

We knew this would happen in rural areas across the country. People who designed content delivery methods, who think everyone has access to high-speed internet and streaming video just don’t get it. If some of those people are social distancing at their cabins, I don’t want to see them crabbing about the slow internet on Facebook.

My friend, the 4-K teacher, has a 4-year-old of her own at home. She can mute her end on a Zoom meeting with colleagues. But it took her three and a half hours one week to record 30 minutes of video because, well…  Stuff happens when you have a family and a dog sharing your impromptu studio space.

Distance learning meets some of the needs of students impacted by Covid-19 closures. The White Lake, Wisconsin school district is also meeting their nutritional needs with bag lunches. (Photo by White Lake School District source: Facebook)

Another friend who works for the state Cooperative Educational Service Agency shared this: “It was a great day of Zoom meetings, highlighted by CESA / DPI folks from across the state being treated to views of my cat’s tuchas. Hey, if the rule is cameras on, you get what you get.”

Even without the logistical challenges, it hasn’t been easy. A friend who is a college professor wrote: “I just got another text from some well-meaning grassroots group and I was polite, but I wanted to say. ‘You know….I’m working. Please stop asking me to volunteer. Everyone I know is at home and many, many, are unemployed and feeling powerless, aimless and depressed. If you are looking for volunteers please help my friends out by helping them to find a reason to get out of bed. Put them on your rosters for helping get the vote out, using craft skills for PPEs and mobilizing for the arts and environment. I will keep trying to educate people, I already voted, I’m on your side, but…don’t text or email me with solicitations any more, please. I feel badly enough about how under-equipped I am just to do my job under these circumstances. Thank you.’”

Underequipped or not, they’re getting the job done. In my own circle of loved ones, the teacher-in-training is at home working with his supervising classroom teacher on electronic educational content for children. The nursing student’s orientation has been abbreviated and altered so parts can be done at home. The high school junior is secretly loving having her older brothers back home. The neighbor kids are learning to dye yarn with plant materials, keeping records of experiments that include math and science and reporting their findings to their teacher.

Even the fire department has implemented distance learning because of Covid-19. Our state’s Safer At Home declaration came halfway through a 10-week officer training class. The students had already been doing weekly quizzes online. The technical college approved a way for them to complete the required hours online, too. There were some frustrating moments when the final exam disappeared, recording only points for questions that had been answered up to then. But they got another chance to finish.

With Safer At Home still in effect, our department is also using an older, low-tech form of distance learning to meet our training goal for April. Since we can’t gather for our annual review of Bloodborne Pathogens, the instructor (a department member) set up a check-out system for the training manuals. People got them when they picked up their homemade face masks. We can all read and review the material at home, then attest to the time when we turn in the books. No video, no Zoom, no bells and whistles. But after facing down a pandemic respiratory virus, I think we’re all ready to take bloodborne pathogens seriously.

Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in rural northern Wisconsin. For a helpful glossary of distance learning terms she recommends this link.

Join the Daily Yonder for a livestream conversation on rural broadband, taking place Thursday, April 16 at 4 p.m. Eastern Time. Click HERE for all the details. 

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