Policy brief lays out resources for rural schools in wake of COVID, wildfire disruptions

The digital divide, COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, lack of community health supports, school staffing shortages and increasingly frequent and destructive wildfires are some of the most prevalent challenges facing rural school districts in California.

The policy brief “Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind: How New Funds Can Address COVID-19 and Wildfire Displacement in California Rural Schools” recently published by the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, dives into these obstacles and identifies potential solutions.

Though they make up less than 5 percent of the state’s K-12 population, there are almost a quarter-million students who attend schools in rural areas. Chronic problems like underfunding, high levels of poverty and fewer opportunities for employment have played into underinvestment in physical and educational infrastructure, according to the brief.

In recent years, those longer-standing issues have been made worse by the pandemic and annual wildfires.

The brief lists current state and federal funding resources that can be used toward implementing evidence-based solutions.

Some resources identified include funding from the American Rescue Plan, the American Families Plan and the 2022–23 state budget, which can be used to foster educator pipelines, offer competitive compensation and credentialing support; bridge the digital divide; develop community schools; and expand the notion of safety in rural schools.

Examples of expanding what safety looks like and preventative measures that could be taken to protect rural areas include  “ventilated buildings for healthier air quality, support for community risk reduction and adaptation planning, integration of forest management into state climate and biodiversity programs, and enhanced protection for wildfire-prone neighborhoods,” the brief states.

California’s Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) initiative is among the strategies recommended to improve overall access for rural local educational agencies. According to the brief, the initiative “has partnered with rural educators and stakeholders to design, refine, and implement interventions promoting individual and community wellness. To ensure that proactive efforts are being effectuated, current state endeavors such as MTSS can serve as a gateway to bridging rural regions with supplementary resources and collaborative relationships.”

In the field

A May 4 webinar covering the brief featured examples from leaders of rural LEAs.

Stephen Hahm, school climate and culture specialist for the Mendocino County Office of Education, recalled a time prior to the pandemic when weather issues or smoke would close schools for days and disrupt learning. Where internet connectivity may have been an issue at home before, the last two years have demanded advancements that make it easier to pivot the mode of instruction as needed and not miss days.

“We have one fiber optic cable that comes to our county and during the pandemic there were seven districts with very limited internet access. The response was really hotspots and Chromebook maintenance … I always say, and I’m not sure if it’s good or bad, but crisis breeds innovation and so that crisis kind of forced people to come together in different ways. Now there’s a little bit of infrastructure and systems can flex and adjust a lot more,” Hahm said.

Salinas Union High School District Assistant Superintendent Blanca Baltazar-Sabbah talked about how the public health crisis reminded educators of the importance of building relationships with government agencies and community organizations to provide a swift all-hands-on-deck response when in a crisis.

In Salinas UHSD, in addition to residency programs to build its teacher workforce and the pursuit of improving social-emotional learning support for its adults, there is a big focus on community schools.

“What we are trying to do that’s innovative is with the community schools grant money — the state money that is being offered — we’re looking at expanding our wraparound services at our wellness centers. Currently we offer academic, behavioral and social-emotional supports but with a community school we’re looking at expanding to medical, dental and food resources that the community needs,” Baltazar-Sabbah said.