The Tragedy of America’s Rural Schools

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At 12:30 p.m., the high school water fountains turned tan, and all the toilets in middle school were no longer working, so Henderson decided to close both schools for the day. A bell rang and Ellington sauntered into the wet hallways. Water splashed on his khakis and other boys screamed and crowded outside the school. When Ellington came out he was looking for his bus but did not see it.

Finally, after the teenagers had been wandering around the parking lot for half an hour, the headmaster came through screaming. The district doesn’t have enough buses to release both middle and upper grades at the same time, he said. “Now go back to your A-block class,” shouted the headmaster. “Move. Let’s go.”

Ellington went in, but when he got to his classroom there were no other students.

Throughout the spring, Ellington sent complaints to Henderson. There were no textbooks in his algebra class, so he spent half the time copying equations onto loose sheets of paper. The teacher tried to supplement his classes with online homework from Khan Academy, a non-profit that offers free video tutorials, but Ellington didn’t have a computer or internet connection at home and couldn’t figure out how to conduct the class on his own Phone so he didn’t lock it. When the teacher scolded him, Ellington was so embarrassed that he argued with her until she sent him to the principal’s office.

A couple of nights before the spring break, Henderson saw Ellington at a round table meeting and could see how downcast the teen was feeling. He didn’t get a science laboratory. He couldn’t do his homework. Even part of the school day was a waste. “I just want out of Holmes County,” Ellington told him.

Henderson didn’t know how long it would take him to help Ellington. He might not find a drama teacher before the end of the semester, and the district probably wouldn’t build a new school before Ellington graduated, but Henderson promised the second half of the spring semester would be better.

The coronavirus reached Mississippi two weeks later.

Henderson knew that Internet access in Holmes was poor, but he had no idea how bad it was: when surveying the county’s families, he found that more than 75 percent of its students had no access to online. Neither do many teachers.

Like all impoverished school districts, Holmes receives federal funding through a program called Title I. In a normal year, Holmes officials spend the additional $ 1,000 per student on tutors and teacher assistants, but after the pandemic closed schools, Henderson ordered some of them them new to those dollars to buy Chromebooks. By the end of March, he had passed out 1,300 tablets. He also turned six school buses into moving hot spots, but the infrastructure did not reach every family. The district had 3,000 students. Some families said there were several children competing to use a Chromebook, and each school bus hotspot only broadcast 30 meters, so much of the county had no access.