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When the State Shifted to E-learning, This Rural School Superintendent Shifted to the Copy Machine

With schools closed because of coronavirus, students are expected to learn remotely. But what happens when your school district doesn’t have the internet access to keep you in school? Here’s one district’s paper trail.

This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.

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The Sunday afternoon before he sent the 850 students in his sprawling rural school district home because of the coronavirus outbreak, Superintendent Larry Lovel shared a picture on Twitter of a decade-old copy machine printing out enough worksheets to help keep them occupied for the expected two-week shutdown.

But now the state’s school closures are expected to extend much longer, perhaps to the end of the school year, and that creates an ongoing dilemma for Trico District 176 and its families, one that reflects a much larger issue of equity that has been magnified by the coronavirus crisis.

The Trico district covers 250 square miles in southwestern Illinois, where the principal industries are coal mining and agri-business. There are no supermarkets within its boundaries and only one major retail store, a Dollar General. Many families don’t have computers or internet connections; they have limited data through their cellphone plans.

As federal and state officials encourage schools to move to online learning during the weeks away from school, that is simply not an option for the three schools that make up Trico.

Most students can’t join a Zoom video call with their class or meet up in a Google Hangout or complete assignments electronically. Their teachers aren’t hosting real-time classroom discussions because students aren’t able to watch them.

The Trico district in southwestern Illinois. (Chicago Tribune)

With technology-free learning the only option for many students, teachers distributed about 5,900 pages of paper lessons to the district’s K-12 students just before they left school March 16. They listed activities students could pick from in each subject, as well as accompanying instructions and reading material. Third graders could choose to “Write a word problem for .438 + 295 =” as one of their math activities, for example. Sixth graders could pick between doing an experiment or mapping a fire evacuation plan for science.

District officials also printed information about the novel coronavirus from the regional health department and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and distributed it to families.

After Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the statewide shutdown Friday, I reached out to Lovel to ask what the extended school closure would mean for a district that can’t educate students online or virtually.

I spoke with him one night after he took a break from building a dog kennel with his children, as a lasagna cooked in the oven. We spoke again as he worked at his school office, planning for the next few weeks. His wife is a third-generation first grade teacher in the district and his children, ages 17, 13 and 9, are students there. He said he’s watched with mixed emotions as other schools across the state have moved instruction online and figured out innovative ways to continue teaching from afar.

“I don’t want to say I’m jealous, but that moves us even further down the road with closing the gap in achievement and technology and accessibility that others are taking for granted,” Lovel said. “We will continue to provide opportunities with paper and pencil.”

An empty classroom at Trico Junior High School, which remains closed amid Illinois’ statewide stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy of Larry Lovel)

Our conversation has been condensed and edited. Here’s what he told me:

“We provide educational opportunities for six small communities, mostly rural. We have a growing population from Guatemala in our area. We have a long-term presence with the Amish community. We have quite a unique collection of cultures, not just the typical you would find in rural America. Connectivity is always a question. We still live in an area where you can have a dropped phone call. I recognize we are rural, and we don’t have a great number of people. Companies for profit are not necessarily going to seek connections here because there are so few people to have a return on that investment.”

“Getting technology in the hands of students even while they are in school is an issue.”

“When I first came to [the] Trico school district as a superintendent [four years ago], there were Chromebooks and laptops and some are 7-12 years old. We have received 75 laptops through State Farm and their charity program over the last three years. They wipe their laptops clean and provide them for donations. Right now, we are retooling old PC laptops to run Chrome in an effort to put more devices in classrooms. Getting technology in the hands of students even while they are in school is an issue. We also do not have the resources to blanketly send home the devices we do have with students, as we have no way to rapidly replace our limited inventories if lost or broken.”

“We had no intention of providing them with what they perceived to be homework for the next week.”

Larry Lovel, superintendent of Trico District 176, works from his dining table at home, as Illinois schools remain closed during the coronavirus pandemic. (Family photo)

“When we realized school would be closed, our teachers sprung into action. The eight copy machines and three Risograph machines ran nonstop. We attempted to provide students with a staggered amount of work, between five to seven days’ worth. We wanted to provide them with enrichment activities. We had no intention of providing them with what they perceived to be homework for the next week. The key was to keep the students’ interest up and the stress level of our parents down.”

“For our school district to convert [to online learning], we would be unduly burdening children and families.”

“Even as we expand our limited student access to technology, our region’s connectivity to the internet also hinders our ability to capitalize on e-learning opportunities. Many of the providers do not have strong signals. Not every community has a library in our area, and now they are closed anyway. Some Wi-Fi there is strong enough that you can sit in the library parking lot and get access. In addition to problems with signal strength, we also have plans that are expensive and limit data. At the Dollar General store, they have huge [displays] with pay as you go cellphones. For many of our families, that is where they gain their technology access. For our school district to convert [to online learning], we would be unduly burdening children and families.”

“Comcast and others saying, ‘Free Wi-Fi and Internet for two months.’ Those providers don’t have a presence in our area.”

“For our district to be out of school for weeks on end, it is not possible for families even with data plans and devices to complete e-learning lessons without using substantial data. Those pay-as-you-go plans are not sufficient to keep pace with the demands of Google apps and Zoom. With the limited data, after 12 or eight days, it goes on slow or safety mode and you can’t do much in safety mode. Comcast and others saying, ‘Free Wi-Fi and Internet for two months.’ Those providers don’t have a presence in our area. It is wonderful that corporations are doing that, but they don’t have the manpower to connect 300 families in the Trico area.”

An empty hallway at Trico Junior High School on March 17, the first day schools closed as part of a statewide shutdown. (Courtesy of Larry Lovel)

“There are subtleties individually that weigh on our hearts.”

“For us, the impact [of a long-term school closure] will be substantial. One of the concerns we always struggle with is regression during June, July and August, and now they will be separated from us during an extended period of time. We miss our kids, obviously. We had kids in fifth grade who made it their personal goal to become million-word readers. There are subtleties individually that weigh on our hearts. There are teams, baseball and softball, that will never have the first pitch. We have prom, and for some it is not important and for others it is a milestone. We have scholarship applications, and many students who don’t have access to the internet will not be able to go online and complete those unless we have somewhere for them to go.”

“We are moving forward.”

“Principals and myself, we are going to say, ‘What are the next steps?’ We are moving forward. We will continue to do some of what we did before. We will send the information by email, make automated calls and post on the district website and Facebook pages. Many of the children who don’t have access to technology, they will be accessing the six breakfast and lunch spots we have set up from 11 to 12, and we will have the learning packets available there. We are set up outside City Hall and the volunteer firehouse because those are essential services that are open. The banks, which we often utilize for information and community events, the lobbies are shut down.”

“My concern about the lack of technology and broadband in our region started long before this.”

“Considering the circumstances, all of us are resourceful and we will have the resolve to get through this. There is a huge inequity currently, but we do our best with what we have. My concern about the lack of technology and broadband in our region started long before this. I hope that when the dust settles, this will be addressed in the future.”


Portrait of Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen is a reporter for ProPublica Illinois, where she has revealed misconduct in a psychiatric research study at the University of Illinois at Chicago, exposed a college financial aid scam and uncovered flaws in the Chicago Police Department’s disciplinary system. Previously, Jodi worked at the Chicago Tribune for 14 years, where she covered higher education and helped expose a secret admissions system at the University of Illinois, among other investigations. Contact Jodi by email and on Twitter.

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