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Rural School Districts Face Unique Challenges Amid School Closures

Warner Unified School District closed March 16 to thwart the spread of the coronavirus. Mar. 20, 2020
Joe Hong
Warner Unified School District closed March 16 to thwart the spread of the coronavirus. Mar. 20, 2020

As a former science teacher, Warner Unified School District Superintendent David MacLeod knew a pandemic was coming when the coronavirus first started spreading in China. He asked teachers to start preparing distance-learning plans in early February.

“I don’t want to sound like a crazy person, but being a science teacher, I taught about the Spanish flu and bird flu,” MacLeod said in an interview with KPBS. “We used those as discussion points.”

But while he was ahead of the curve in planning, MacLeod faces unique challenges as the leader of a rural school district surrounded by the dramatic scenery of Palomar Mountain and Cleveland National Forest in northeastern San Diego County.

Rural School Districts Face Unique Challenges Amid School Closures
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Internet connections throughout the district are unreliable, so Warner Unified isn’t able to transition to virtual classrooms as easily as urban districts. Also, a number of its 200 students are Native Americans who live on reservations that are too remote to even be connected to the internet.

Elizabeth Bystedt, superintendent of the Jamul-Dulzura Elementary School District, sent students home with work packets while schools were closed during the coronavirus outbreak. Mar. 19, 2020
Joe Hong
Elizabeth Bystedt, superintendent of the Jamul-Dulzura Elementary School District, sent students home with work packets while schools were closed during the coronavirus outbreak. Mar. 19, 2020

So, when county schools all decided to close, MacLeod knew online learning wouldn’t really be an option for his district.

“There are cell towers, but they’re narrow along the highway, and if you’re off the highway you get no reception,” he said.

So far, Warner Unified has had to do things the old-school way by sending students home with paper packets. Teachers spent the month of February preparing age-appropriate lessons.

“It’s mostly packets because out here, there’s barely any internet connection as you can see,” said Rudy Mercado, a sophomore at Warner High School.

Warner Unified isn’t the only rural district facing these challenges. Elizabeth Bystedt, superintendent of the Jamul-Dulzura Elementary School District in east San Diego County, has been fielding calls from worried parents and also technology companies that see an opportunity.

“It’s amazing how many emails are coming from vendors from all over to try and support schools, which is wonderful, but they’re inundating at the same time,” said Bystedt said.

VIDEO: Rural School Districts Face Unique Challenges Amid School Closures

Both the Warner and Jamul-Dulzura districts are working to purchase devices called hotspots, which would allow students in remote areas to get an internet connection.

“Our technology departments are working to get hotspots for those families that don’t have internet,” Bystedt said. “We have Chromebooks. So it’s really the issue of making sure that if we give them a Chromebook, they can actually use it.”

These districts are also working to keep students fed while schools are closed. Jamul-Dulzura has partnered with the Grossmont Union High School District to distribute food.

Warner Unified School District Superintendent David MacLeod delivers food to students and their families while schools are closed during the coronavirus outbreak. Mar. 20, 2020
Joe Hong
Warner Unified School District Superintendent David MacLeod delivers food to students and their families while schools are closed during the coronavirus outbreak. Mar. 20, 2020

In Warner Unified, about 85% of students are low-income and eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. Since schools closed last week, MacLeod’s been hand-delivering meals to students who live in Lake Henshaw resort, a trailer park about 10 minutes from the district office.

But it’s not just the students who need food in this community.

“We do buy extra, so if we have extra milk, it’s gonna expire so we give that out. We also have fruit that’s gonna go bad,” MacLeod said.

MacLeod had hoped this would last for just a few weeks. But now, he’s preparing for a much longer ordeal.

“Schools are online, and everything’s going online,” MacLeod said. “The rural backcountry can’t get left behind.”