Fear of unknown concerns rural school district planning in-person instruction amid COVID
ST. CLAIRSVILLE -- Lori Bodkin knows firsthand how the coronavirus can drive even the most rational of minds into a frenzy of fear.
The 49-year-old mother of two had COVID-19 in the spring, along with the rest of her family. They were terrified.
Her family was essentially a guinea pig for the virus in their rural community of St. Clairsville back in March, she said.
While her kids recovered quickly, her husband barely avoided hospitalization. Altogether, they were quarantined for nine weeks.
During that time, she was let go from her position at a heavy-truck dealership. One domino kept falling after the other.
Bodkin, a parent in the St. Clairsville-Richland City Schools district in Belmont County, is acutely aware of most of her community’s ambivalence toward COVID-19, especially as the school district’s plan to begin in-person classes five days a week looms.
“If you start remote, it’s harder to reintegrate without fear,” she said. “But in this particular area, some people are kind of apathetic … they need to know this is real. This was in your hometown.”
Despite store closures at the nearby Ohio Valley Mall along Interstate 70, St. Clairsville has a well-maintained Downtown commercial district and is the county seat for Belmont County. But 40% of the student population, nearly 680 kids, lives in nearby rural villages and unincorporated communities that the St. Clairsville-Richland district serves.
About 15% of Belmont County doesn’t have access to the minimum standard internet speed — 25 megabits per second by 3 megabits per second — to download/upload files, and 12% of students and their families do not have any access to Wi-Fi, mobile hot spots or internet-enabled devices.
A lack of internet access in those rural areas creates challenges for school districts like St. Clairsville, making remote learning difficult for most and nearly impossible for poor children. Fear of the virus’ economic impact and frustrations over mask mandates also factor into how the community thinks about school.
St. Clairsville-Richland City Schools will start classes Aug. 31, with a hybrid orientation the first week. Full-time, in-person instruction will start the following Monday, Sept. 7, said Superintendent Walt Skaggs.
“I think everybody has reservations and concerns, but I think the consensus is that kids perform best in schools,” he said.
But Skaggs hedged, adding that the plan could change at any time, depending on new COVID-19 data.
“The struggle is the change,” Skaggs said. “It’s so fluid and hard to adjust to keep our staff and students safe.”
The school district is one of many in largely rural Belmont County and nearby Tuscarawas County that plan to start the school year with in-person classes.
Coordinated by each district in partnership with local public health departments, the decision to start in-person or remote learning is being determined by community survey data and access to broadband resources, according to the East Central Ohio Educational Service Center (ESC).
Randy Lucas, the superintendent of the East Central Ohio ESC, said the 22 school districts in his counties are adhering to a colored, tiered system that the service center developed. Green equals in-person, yellow means hybrid and red is fully remote.
“The No. 1 problem is broadband,” Lucas said. “It’s very difficult to hold students and family accountable for the work if you can’t guarantee they have access to the internet.”
It’s an ongoing crisis for Skaggs as well, who, on top of securing personal protective equipment (PPE) for his staff and trying to arrange socially distanced classrooms, recently applied for additional federal CARES Act funding set aside by Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration to purchase mobile hot spots and internet-enabled devices.
“If we can’t make (in-person) happen, then having a quality program if we’re forced to go remote is a top priority,” Skaggs said.
St. Clairsville-Richland City Schools will determine who has access to the internet so they can provide families with hot-spot connections or other resources if the district turns to a hybrid or remote model, he said. But there are some areas where even hot spots won’t work, so the administration has arranged drive-up locations where parents can take their students to download/upload assignments.
“If people are looking for the end of the internet, I think it’s in Belmont County,” said Ryan Clifford, a special education teacher and St. Clairsville teachers union president.
“A lot of the kids don’t have resources to drive themselves to get to hot spots,” Clifford said. “A lot of poor kids don’t have access to cellphones, and you’re still calling land lines to get to them.”
Last spring, some teachers were forced to hand-deliver learning packets to their students’ driveways, Clifford said.
But it’s all of the unknowns that drive the community’s fear: of the virus, of remote instruction and of a lost year of education, he said.
“Sure, we’re giving students the option of coming back or going all-online, but what does that look like? How do we reach those kids that don’t come back?” Clifford said.
“We can’t lose them,” he said.
The district has surveyed parents and 20% say they want a hybrid or remote option because of COVID concerns, so Skaggs has implemented a remote option for the year taught by St. Clairsville teachers, he said. The remaining 80% of parents want in-person learning.
But in-person learning still terrifies a lot of teachers.
“Unfortunately our high school and elementary school do not have air conditioning,” Clifford said. “We’re going back to school with 600 kids basically in a hotbox, which spreads germs and diseases without a pandemic going on. Having a face mask on all day — while it’s the right thing to do — it’s not going to be easy for some teachers to do.”
Lori Bodkin said her daughter, Alyssa, who will start her junior year at St. Clairsville High School in a couple of weeks, is desperate for a normal school year.
Bodkin, however, is certain it won’t be a normal year — something’s she’s tried to communicate to her daughter gently.
“If you don’t paint a picture of realism to your kids, you’re selling them a bill of goods. That’s just not fair,” she said.
A devout Christian, Bodkin said she believes in the science behind COVID-19 and understands there are no guarantees of safety once kids head off to school.
“I’m very strong in my faith, but ... I’m not ignorant enough to say, ‘Well my God’s going to take care of me; I do not need to wear a mask,’’’ she said.
And while the faculty at St. Clairsville knows it’s better from an educational perspective to have students in schools, Clifford said it’s anyone’s guess how long it will last.
“At the end of the day, it’s easy to go online and bash the schools and the teachers,” he said. “But we’re spending a lot of time to figure out how to best serve the schools ... and these (plans) are not being thought up on a last minute’s notice.”
Bodkin urges parents and guardians to do what’s best for their children and avoid letting others make them feel guilty about their decisions.
“If you feel comfortable or you don’t have another choice, then go ahead and send them to school,” she said. “But listen to your bodies and doctors if you get sick. If you use common sense, that’s half the battle.”