Introduction

This policy brief identifies unique challenges and opportunities for CA’s rural schools and communities.

Rural schools and communities face a unique set of chronic challenges including high levels of poverty and fewer job opportunities relative to urban areas, less access to healthcare, more significant teacher shortages, and heightened vulnerability to labor market shocks. Because school enrollment drives public school funding, rural schools have been historically underfunded, contributing to underinvestment in physical and educational infrastructure.

The impact of these historic trends has been compounded by two distinctly modern challenges: COVID-19 and rampant annual wildfires. These challenges demand urgent action, and recent federal and state dollars represent an important investment to fund such action. If properly leveraged and made accessible to rural communities, federal and state resources can support rural districts in harnessing their unique assets and mitigating their distinct challenges.

This policy brief explores current state and federal resources available to support evidence based solutions to the most pressing challenges facing rural California schools. These resources include funds from the American Rescue Plan, the American Families Plan, and the 2022-2023 California state budget.

Challenges

1. The Digital Divide
Rural households in California have the lowest broadband subscription rates in the state, creating connectivity challenges that limit access to remote learning and telehealth resources. For students in rural districts, these connectivity challenges are likely to be compounded by limited access to digital devices, as rural districts are less likely than urban districts to provide students with Wi-Fi hotspots or devices like Chromebooks and tablets. This is likely to impact academic engagement and achievement. Students without reliable internet access have greater difficulties accessing learning supports, completing homework, and connecting with their peers and teachers. While state and local leaders made great efforts to increase access to technology and engage students in distance learning, this digital divide and the opportunity gaps it reinforces persist. In an increasingly digital economy, digital exclusion can exacerbate economic, social, and political marginalization for rural populations, especially those with growing numbers of migrant workers, people of color, and families living at or near the poverty line.

2. COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy
Recent COVID-19 vaccination data highlights greater vaccine hesitancy in rural areas. Of the 15 counties with the lowest single-dose vaccination rates of residents 18 or older, 14 are considered rural districts.This vaccine hesitancy poses unique challenges for rural schools in California. First, vaccine hesitancy in rural America threatens to prolong the pandemic, forcing school closures and putting communities at risk. The pandemic has had severe negative effects on unemployment, overall life satisfaction, mental health, and economic outlook in rural areas. Rural communities provide the social support systems essential to students’ well-being, safety, and ability to engage in their learning environments. Second, vaccine hesitancy is especially problematic given that rural districts have higher proportions of students living in the care of grandparents. In California, the statewide average is 3.1%. Yet in predominantly rural counties, this rate hovers around 5%. Vaccine hesitancy threatens these support systems, which are essential to student learning and well-being. They also threaten continued school closures and school disruption, which is likely to compound the impacts of other academic disadvantages, such as digital access issues and teacher shortages.

3. Lack of Community Health Support
Students in rural California report chronic and persistent health concerns at higher rates than their urban and suburban peers. Rural adolescents were more likely to report they had asthma and more likely to describe their general health condition as “fair or poor.” Rural adolescents were more likely to report a delay or failure to access the medical care they believed they needed. Rural adolescents were also more likely to report they had no primary source of care or that their primary source of care was an emergency room or urgent care. Finally, rural adolescents with asthma were less likely to report receiving an asthma management plan from a health professional.These statistics underscore a reality for many rural areas, where there are far fewer institutional social safety nets to alleviate the impact of health challenges, school closures, and economic shocks. In many of these communities, schools operate as central places for receiving care for basic needs such as health and nutrition. This places strain on schools and educators to mitigate the impacts of unmet health needs.

These needs are likely to be greater given that COVID-19 and the transition to distance learning likely exacerbated student difficulties receiving healthcare. Distance learning isolated students from school nurses and school-based mental health professionals. Given the low density of community health organizations in rural areas, these health professionals often serve as a primary point of care. For students with unmet health needs, this could have a long-term negative impact on student achievement, attendance, and engagement.

4. School Staffing Challenges
Teacher shortages are more frequently reported in rural districts compared to suburban districts. These persistent shortages have been compounded by challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The California State Teachers’ Retirement system reported a 26% increase in the number of teacher retirements in the second half of 2020, compared to the same period the year prior. Staffing shortages likely impacted rural schools’ ability to offer certain supports during virtual learning and throughout COVID. Rural schools were less likely than urban and suburban schools to offer one-on-one or small group tutoring to mitigate the impact of learning and school engagement difficulties. As staffing shortages persist, educators, administrators, and superintendents in rural ecosystems are expected to fulfill multiple roles, leading to burnout and low rates of staff retention.

5. Increasingly Frequent and Destructive Wildfires
In recent years, the impact of wildfires in rural California communities has increased exponentially. According to Cal Fire data, an estimated 2,568,948 acres were burned during the 2021 wildfire season, with the majority of the devastation being experienced in Northern and Central rural California counties (2021). To date, annual wildfires in California have led to the displacement of tens of thousands of families and the destruction of hundreds of schools. The growing number of wildfire-impacted counties has increased the urgency of providing rural populations with proactive community-rebuilding resources. Dr. Lisa Patel of the Stanford School of Medicine advocated that improving air quality in rural communities is an urgent matter given that the dual effect of COVID-19 and the annual wildfire impact could lead to significant health consequences for rural residents. For example, given the higher incidence of asthma amongst rural youth, wildfires are particularly consequential. Asthma symptoms are often aggravated amongst youth when wildfires occur due to the inhalation of smoke and toxins that pollute the air during fire devastation.

Recent state and federal initiatives aim to implement a sustainable infrastructure in rural California counties that strive to set measures to minimize the detriment of wildfires in the upcoming years. The annual impact of wildfires in rural California has revealed the urgent need for policy solutions that mitigate the impact of rural student displacement and support the holistic well-being of rural residents. Because recovery efforts are often interrupted by new fires, measures must be devised ahead of time to mitigate the devastations caused by these disasters. Nevertheless, most rural schools and districts have limited resources at their disposal to be proactive in making long-term infrastructure plans to deal with the impact of catastrophic wildfires.

Solutions

1. Expand our Notion of Safety in Rural Schools
Given the challenges that increasingly frequent and destructive wildfires present to rural communities, it is imperative to provide proactive aid to mediate the annual devastations caused by annual wildfires. Dealing with two simultaneous public health crises, wildfires and COVID-19 calls for an increased need to widen perspectives on rural school safety that promote rectifying physical school infrastructure that aligns with the health-based needs of students, educators, and community members. For example, preventative measures for rural California communities could 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.

2. Foster Educator Pipelines, Competitive Compensation, and Credentialing Support

A. Invest in “Grow Your Own” programs and teacher residencies for rural areas. As highlighted in a recent policy brief published by the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, teacher residencies and “Grow Your Own” programs represent a viable and impactful solution for building a robust and diverse educator workforce. “Grow Your Own” programs recruit community members, such as parents and paraprofessionals, who tend to have long-standing ties to the community. These residency programs integrate masters level education with the practical experience of a classroom internship in a public school. Though most residency programs operate in urban and suburban areas, there are a growing number of rural teacher residencies across the state and promising early research to support their effectiveness. Moreover, there is some evidence that residency models are effective in recruiting and training teachers and retaining teachers. Considering the cost of replacing a teacher in a rural school is roughly $9,000, residencies and ‘Grow Your Own’ pathways represent an important pathway to addressing rural teacher shortages. Because rural districts may be many miles away from the closest teaching college, such programs represent a way to overcome geographic isolation.

B. Better fund teaching positions in rural areas to make them more attractive for teacher candidates and disincentivize attrition. Rural educators are often paid less than suburban and urban educators. By increasing compensation packages, either by raising salaries or offering compensation incentives like student loan forgiveness, rural districts may better incentivize teachers to work in geographically isolated areas.

C. Support rural teacher candidates through the credentialing process. Between 2012 and 2019, the number of California educators working with emergency or provisional credentials increased from 4,724 to roughly 14,000. Educators on provisional credentials are typically only able to teach for one year and have higher attrition rates than credentialed teachers. Yet, these educators are an important pipeline to addressing chronic teacher shortages in rural areas if adequately supported. There are several barriers to earning a teaching credential, including passing required tests and accessing financial assistance to complete educator preparation programs. Pre-pandemic data suggests that roughly 40% of teacher candidates failed to pass one of the multiple required tests for earning a teaching credential from the state of California. These tests are expensive, costing up to $250 every time they are taken. By better supporting these staff through the credentialing process and providing fee waivers, the state of California can help address the expensive cost of teacher attrition and alleviate the impacts of chronic teacher shortages.

3. Bridge the Digital Divide
In an information-rich economy, digital exclusion comes with high social and economic costs, digital access is a right for rural communities and students. In the short term, advocating for and forming partnerships with private organizations can provide additional services to students and families in high-need rural communities. But relying on private investment is likely to contribute to a historic precedent of corporate consolidation of rural land, services, and small businesses. Rural communities need public support, including a weighted funding allocation for federal dollars targeting districts and communities with the most significant digital divides and the weakest information infrastructures. Moreover, schools and districts need targeted professional development and technology support in effectively integrating technology and digital resources into curriculum, instruction, and school operations.

4. Community Schools
Rural community schools support physical well-being and access to community health services, which are especially necessary for rural communities with sparse community support services for medical, dental, and mental health. School models emphasizing wraparound services have grown in prominence and popularity over the years. Such schools provide several services for supporting rural students and community members, including physical and mental health care, after-school programming, and educational resources for parents, which help address students’ basic and academic needs. Several state and federal funding sources are available when districts and schools adopt a full-service community school model.