A Southside Independent School District bus leaves the recently constructed Menchaca Early Childhood Center.
The Southside Independent School District board has voted to cancel a districtwide bond slated for November. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Richard Grill oversees the Sabinal Independent School District, a small rural district halfway between San Antonio and Del Rio, and these days his many hats are a heavy burden.

Last school year, Grill’s district enrolled fewer than 450 students, so attendance didn’t bring in enough funds for many additional staff positions. That means Grill served as not just the superintendent, but also the director of human resources, curriculum chief, and public information officer.

It’s a tricky balance to strike under normal circumstances, but with the added pressure of serving students during a global pandemic, the extra responsibilities can be a lot to manage. So while large district superintendents have support staff, and sometimes teams, in place to help manage the coronavirus fallout, Grill is one of just a handful of Sabinal ISD central office administrators planning for the unprecedented campus closures.

Much as Grill plays a large role in the operations of Sabinal ISD, other rural districts’ influences are outsize in their surrounding communities.

These districts are often some of the largest – if not the largest – employer in their areas. The majority of the ones surrounding San Antonio provide meals for at least half of their enrolled students. Rural districts also serve as the portal through which students can connect to the internet in regions where connectivity is significantly weaker than in urban centers.

“We’re the community hubs, we are the event centers,” Grill said. “And when we are faced with unique situations, regardless of what it is, we have very limited human capital in getting the job done.”

Every school district in Texas is under an order from Gov. Greg Abbott to keep campuses closed until May 4. Texas Education Agency officials told superintendents that districts can expect state funding to continue as long as they can prove continuity of education, pushing districts to craft remote lessons that students can complete online or in paper packets.

Education officials emphasize this is an unprecedented situation with an impact that no one could plan for. But for rural districts, the strain might be felt in different ways. And in Texas, where the majority of school districts – close to three-quarters of the state’s 1,200 – are classified as small, enrolling less than 3,000 students, these challenges are being felt far and wide.

“If you go south in the southern part of our district, very rural Highway 16, they just don’t have any of the resources and infrastructure needed to [have] that access.” Somerset ISD Superintendent Saul Hinojosa said.

Even Wi-Fi hotspots can’t fix the problem, he added, because the signal is still too weak. The bandwidth families can access is so low that it becomes a challenge to use any kind of device.

That’s why Hinojosa told teachers to prepare paper packets, as well. The district is using the same bus that delivers meals to families to pass out paper packets.

Southside ISD has faced a similar dilemma, even while building up internet infrastructure. At a coronavirus-focused meeting, the board approved additional investments in Wi-Fi accessibility throughout the district.

The district still printed an abundance of paper instructional packets for families without reliable connectivity. Southside teachers made more packets than they anticipated would be needed and the district still ran out, Superintendent Mark Eads said.

In nearby Medina Valley ISD, teachers are mailing paper packets to families, but they are finding it challenging to get them back for feedback or grading. Teachers are getting creative to overcome obstacles, asking parents with camera-equipped cellphones to snap photos of their children’s assignments and text them in for submission.

Nearly a third of rural Texans lack access to broadband infrastructure, according to Connected Nation Texas, a nonprofit focused on increasing high-speed internet access. While the vast majority of rural households, about 95 percent, have basic internet access, a large number, close to 450,000, don’t have access to broadband.

“Even with those [families] that have connectivity, what we found out when we rolled this out this week is that parents with multiple children were having difficulty with connectivity at home and having multiple devices on the internet,” Medina Valley ISD Superintendent Kenneth Rohrbach said. “We had to back off a little bit on the amount of work we were giving, making sure it is quality work rather than quantity.”

Natalia ISD board President Eric Smith has seen the struggles to keep all students connected in his own area.

“In the town itself, you have like two or three options for [internet service providers] but once you get outside the town you’re limited to maybe one option or in some areas no options,” Smith said.

Less than an hour south of Smith’s district is Dilley ISD, where JD Rodriguez III is a school board trustee. He identified another issue common in rural areas: a lack of nearby resources.

During orders to stay home unless engaging in essential business, it can be challenging for families to stock up on needed groceries from grocery stores located miles away.

This makes the role of the local school district as the weekday food provider for the majority of students even more important.

In Dilley ISD, more than 80 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged. Since campuses have closed, Dilley has mobilized employees to distribute three meals each day at one central location.

Rodriguez saw the news that Houston ISD had to temporarily shut down its own meal distribution after a volunteer at one of the pickup sites reported coming into contact with a person who had a positive COVID-19 diagnosis.

Rodriguez said he and other trustees knew shutting down the meal distribution wasn’t an option, so employees are screened each day they arrive to pass out meals.

Eads recognized that food insecurity also could be an issue in Southside ISD, where 82 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged. Even in a normal school year, it can be frustrating for area residents that there is no grocery store within the district’s vast boundaries. A dearth of public transit options for Southside ISD residents only compounds this issue for the poorest families.

For Eads, that meant using school buses as couriers for meals, taking them to hard-to-reach areas of the school district. This week, bus drivers and child nutrition workers teamed up to make deliveries, stopping in Sandy Oaks, for example, a small city of less than 5,000 located south of Loop 1604.

Are you an educator or do you have a student in your home who now has to learn remotely?

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.