LEWISTON — As school districts across America began shutting down in March, a Bates College professor with a keen interest in rural education recognized the growing pandemic would magnify the hardships already facing students, families and communities distant from wealthier cities and suburbs.

“The resource inequities are vast,” said Mara Tieken, an associate professor of education at Bates and author of “Why Rural Schools Matter.

Rather than sit back and watch the crisis unfold, Tieken got busy reaching out to contacts across the country, many of them rural district superintendents and officials scrambling to figure out what they needed to do and how to do it.

“I heard back from a whole lot of people,” Tieken said. She soon organized a shared Google document providing them with links to information and resources that might help them cope with the unexpected, dangerous coronavirus that upended life almost everywhere.

With a push from Tieken, that shared online document was transformed last month into a website, Rural Community Resource Hub, that’s managed by the staff of the Harvard Education Redesign Lab.

Tieken said it’s a place to share ideas and keep up with the latest COVID-19 news and initiatives that relate to rural America. Separate sections are geared toward parents, school administrators and community leaders.

“We’ve been getting some really good feedback,” Tieken said.

Mara Tieken is a professor at Bates College with a passion for rural schools. Bates College photo

Taking in so much information, and hearing so many stories, Tieken has a better sense than most about the big picture of what’s going on in the countryside, especially in New England and the Southeast.

She said she’s been heartened by the rapid focus, and success, of rural districts in finding ways to feed hungry children who are no longer in school.

But she’s discouraged about a digital divide that has limited the reach of broadband internet in rural towns, a problem that’s been exacerbated by the necessity of shifting so much education online.

Those without access are inherently left behind, Tieken said.

And for the many rural people who don’t speak English, the situation is even worse, she said. “They’re falling further and further” from the front ranks, Tieken said.

The country simply has to do better about making sure students everywhere have access to quality education, she said, including nearly half the students in Maine who attend rural schools.

For Tieken, the necessity of better rural education has been a driving belief since she saw the need firsthand as a college student eyeing a possible career as a teacher.

Teaching in a poor rural community about 45 minutes from campus, Tieken “quickly discovered that while my fifth-graders were smart, hardworking, and deserving, there are winners and losers in the struggle for educational resources, and somehow, they were on the losing end,” she told Bates students during a baccalaureate address two years ago.

While her students often arrived at school hungry, she knew that back on campus she could eat as much as she wanted in five different dining halls.

The school where she taught couldn’t even supply pencils to students, Tieken said, while “back on campus there were more computers than students, all with free printing and free software and free maintenance.”

“How was it, I wondered, that my college classmates and I could have so much — more, in fact, than we would ever need — while my students could have so little?” Tieken asked.

Trying to answer that question, and provide more access to good education for students everywhere, turned out to be the foundation of her career.

Teaching, it turned out, wasn’t really her thing.

On her first day on her own in the classroom, she told Bates students, her math lesson “dissolved into student-led rebellion, counting blocks began flying across the classroom, a student went missing, and someone called the principal.”

It could have been worse. They found the missing student “handcuffed to a tree outside — it’s still not clear to me why he had handcuffs, but apparently he would rather chain himself to a tree than suffer another minute in my classroom,” Tieken said.

She kept at it for a while anyway, in a poor area of Tennessee that drove home something she’d increasingly come to see: that the one in five students in the country who attend rural schools are too often invisible to the nation’s decision-makers.

Tieken decided to try to turn the spotlight on them, to do what she could to help.

She headed to Harvard University and earned a doctorate in education that led to her position at Bates, where she’s been for nine years, increasingly recognized as an important voice for rural schools in America.

The bottom line today, Tieken said, is that the pandemic is exacerbating the inequities that have left rural America behind in many ways.

The pandemic’s impact has made it clear, she said, that there needs to be a national infrastructure push that ensures broadband access to everybody.

“We need to think of internet access the way we think of access to water,” Tieken said. “if anything, this crisis shows us how much we depend on the internet.”

She said it’s also time to address the unfair distribution of resources that allows rich urban districts to offer students so much more than poor rural ones. That’s largely the result of undue reliance on property taxes to fund education, Tieken said.

On a smaller scale, though, Tieken said she’s seeing different places innovate, not facing the pandemic in lockstep.

One thing that’s surprised her, she said, is the different way that adults and students approach technology. She urged rural leaders “to take students’ leads” and leverage the tools they rely on.

For instance, Tieken said, “Kids don’t use Zoom.” They have other applications and ideas that adults should embrace.

Engage students in designing how to carry on with education because “they have the best ideas,” Tieken said.

Too often, she said, “The ones who know the least are the ones making the decisions.”

On the other hand, school districts have “stepped up to the challenge” in many places to serve as the anchor of their communities, the place that directs people to resources and ensures their basic needs are met, Tieken said.

She said she’s chipping in as best she can to help them navigate a path forward during a time of crisis.

But, in the end, there are a lot of people doing important work with far less attention paid to them. Her job, she said, is to support those on the front lines.

“I’m not the one driving the bus, dropping off the meals in rural America,” Tieken said.

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